The Supreme Court of Virginia recently upheld a circuit court decision invalidating a county’s plan to claw back tax refunds because it violated the state constitution’s uniform taxation requirement.

The Isle of Wight County changed the valuation methodology for its machinery and tools tax (“M&T tax”), resulting in approximately $5.6 million in refunds for tax years 2013-2015. In response to the significant budgetary shortfall caused by the refunds, the county enacted a large one-year hike of its M&T tax rate for 2017 coupled with a “M&T Tax Relief Program” that provided “grants” to certain taxpayers. The grants were for the differential between the 2016 and 2017 rates, minus any refund amounts that a taxpayer may have received for the 2013-2015 period.  The net effect of this approach is that the only taxpayers who had to pay the significantly increased M&T tax rate were the ones who received refunds, and the increased amounts they owed were limited to the amount of the M&T tax refund they had received from the county.

International Paper, one of the affected taxpayers, challenged its tax assessment for 2017.  The Supreme Court held that the M&T Tax Relief Program operated effectively as a partial tax exemption, which made International Paper’s 2017 M&T tax assessment non-uniform, invalid and illegal. Because the M&T tax rate hike was enacted in tandem with the M&T Tax Relief Program, both were invalidated. Additionally, the county procedurally defaulted on its argument that it was entitled to rely on 2016 rates, so the taxpayer was entitled to a full M&T tax refund for 2017.

County of Isle of Wight v. International Paper Company, 881 S.E.2d 776 (Va. 2022).