Past Assessor talks about assessments

Pocatello resident Arlen Walker, right, goes through some of his property assessment documents during a discussion that he and former Bannock County Assessor’s Office officials Jo Lynn Anderson, left, and Crickett Hawkins had with the Idaho State Journal on Wednesday about the controversial countywide reassessment.

Bannock County Commissioner Ernie Moser vows he and his colleagues will work nights and weekends if necessary to hear the more than 1,000 property assessment appeals filed before Friday’s deadline.

“If we go 24 hours per day, we’re going to give people their legal rights,” Moser said Friday afternoon, as a steady line of property owners continued filing appeals at the Assessor’s Office across from the Bannock County Courthouse in Pocatello.

A recent countywide property reassessment by the Bannock County Assessor’s Office caused property assessments in the county to skyrocket, triggering a panic among many county residents. One former Bannock County assessor has suggested the county should start from scratch and redo the countywide reassessment while the Idaho Tax Commission says property assessments in Bannock County were in fact already in compliance with state guidelines prior to the countywide reassessment.

Compounding frustrations, the new assessment notices were mailed 18 days late. County property owners received the notices informing them of their new assessments on the same day, June 24, as the appeals deadline, causing county officials to extend the deadline to Friday, July 5.

The Assessor’s Office has attributed the delayed notices to a new computer system.

Moser said the county received verbal permission from the Idaho State Tax Commission to hear appeals through the end of July.

Each appeal hearing lasts about 20 minutes, and many contested cases should be resolved prior to hearings through meetings between property owners and county appraisers.

Time is of the essence as Bannock County must work through the overwhelming caseload of assessment appeal hearings in time for taxing entities in the county to set their annual budgets. Those taxing entities include not just the county, but all of the cities and school districts in the county, and they all rely on the property assessments determined by the Bannock County Assessor’s Office to set their property tax rates this time of year for budgeting purposes.

Despite the time crunch, the Bannock County Board of Equalization, which is comprised of the county’s three commissioners and issues rulings on the assessment appeals, opted to suspend those appeal hearings from July 3 until July 10.

Moser explained the county had interpreted state law designating Idaho as a Right to Privacy state “too broadly” and improperly withheld certain public documents that property owners had requested for their appeals hearings.

Specifically, the county wasn’t providing appellants with certain details about comparable property sales in advance of the appeals hearings, Moser said. It’s hoped that during the time the appeals hearings have been suspended — July 3 to July 10 — that county residents will be able to visit the Assessor’s Office and get the comparable property sale data needed for their appeals.

“That’s why we held off, to make sure people actually have the information,” Moser said, adding that the delay will also help the Assessor’s Office get caught up in research and responding to questions.

Pocatello resident Pat Wallin, whose home assessment was recently adjusted from $307,000 to $381,000, once volunteered in the Bannock County Assessor’s Office. She said she knew from experience that the county was mistaken for initially withholding the comparable property sale data she had requested to help prove her case during her upcoming assessment appeal hearing.

Arlen Walker, whose home in Pocatello’s university neighborhood rose 33 percent in value, has been helping his neighbors understand the process of challenging their assessments. He said the public’s anger about the countywide reassessment is so intense that someone taped assessment appeal forms onto the door of every home in his neighborhood.

“I’ve found (the assessment increase) ranges from 21 percent to 44 percent,” Walker said.

The Bannock County Assessor’s Office has thus far not provided an average assessment increase for the county.

Walker, too, was told by county officials that he didn’t have the right to access data on the comparable property sales used to set his new assessment because Idaho is a Right to Privacy state.

Walker is also troubled that the parcel numbers on the new assessment notices all appear to have two extra digits, making it impossible to access records on Bannock County’s parcel viewer website with the numbers provided.

He wonders why the public wasn’t promptly notified by county officials that the assessment notices were going to be mailed so late or that the parcel numbers on the notices were incorrect.

A couple of past Bannock County Assessor’s Office employees have taken exception to claims from county officials that the large assessment increases are due, in part, to previous assessors failing to keep pace with housing value increases.

Jolynne Anderson, who worked for the Assessor’s Office for 35 year, including four years as assessor, and her former chief deputy, Crickett Hawkins, referenced a statement by Bannock County Commissioner Steve Brown, made during a recent press conference.

Brown said during the press conference, “Over the last number of decades, we’ve had people in charge that chose not to make the hard decisions but chose to make political decisions, and as a result, values didn’t go where they needed to go.”

Anderson and Hawkins assured the Idaho State Journal that when they supervised the Assessor’s Office, property assessments in the county were kept to between 90 percent and 105 percent of true market value, as required by law.

“It hasn’t been decades since this was done. It’s a real stickler with Crickett and me because it isn’t true,” Anderson said about Brown’s comment. “They’re trying to hide under the bed, and it isn’t true.”

Brown did not return phone calls from the Journal to respond to Crickett and Anderson’s issues with his comment.

Anderson believes the county’s new assessor, Sheri Davies, has set assessments well above actual property values in Bannock County, using a still-glitchy computer system.

Davis has previously acknowledged that the new computer system has problems, admitting it’s created mistakes in many assessments. She’s also recommended that Bannock County residents whose assessments have increased by more than 50 percent should appeal those assessments.

Anderson argues Davies should start the process over.

“Roll back the values to what they were last year and assess values on the market year 2018,” Anderson said. “Iron out all of these bugs and get (Davies) educated, as well as the commissioners.”

The county commissioners point out that leaving appraisals the same isn’t an option, as Idaho code requires that “all parcels of property under the assessor’s jurisdiction are assessed at current market value.”

Another point of contention pertains to whether or not the Idaho Tax Commission had found assessed property values in the county to be out of compliance with actual market values and was demanding that the county immediately correct the problem.

The county commissioners have previously said Bannock County was given notice by the Idaho Tax Commission a few years ago that it was out of compliance but the county failed to take action, forcing a large countywide assessment adjustment this year.

Moser, who took office in January, told the Journal on Friday that he has no background about past years, but he said the county commissioners received a letter from the Tax Commission this past spring notifying them that the county was out of property assessment compliance.

In response to this issue, George Brown, the Property Tax Division administrator with the Idaho Tax Commission, said Bannock County’s property assessments haven’t been out of compliance in several years. However, he explained the Tax Commission conducts an annual “ratio study,” which is intended to provide county assessors with guidance. He said that study concluded Bannock County had to make up ground on its assessments due to rapid recent growth in property values in the county, but this didn’t mean that the county was out of compliance.

Davies could not be reached for comment on Friday. Assessor’s Office employees said her schedule was packed with meetings with property owners about their assessments.

She and the county commissioners have continually emphasized that the increased assessments won’t necessarily translate to a greater tax burden for property owners in the county.

State law caps the amount at which taxing entities can increase their budgets at 3 percent above the prior year’s approved budget amount. To stay within the cap range while factoring in the higher assessments of property in the county, taxing entities will likely have to lower their tax rates, Davies and the commissioners have said.

Moser said Board of Equalization assessment appeal hearings so far have resulted in some assessment decreases, and the board has ordered new assessments of some properties because of questionable numbers. Property owners who disagree with decisions by the Board of Equalization may appeal their cases to the State Board of Tax Appeals or to district court.

“I feel like we are listening to people and that their rights are being protected,” Moser said.