by Sandia Belgrade
The last meeting of November had an outpouring of people representing various entities protesting the latest tax valuation. While most of those attending were questioning the process and accuracy, a few made pointed accusations against Peter Peterson, County Assessor, and his findings. Debra Westra, President of the Board of Directors of the Northern Saguache Library District, requested the meeting because the Library District is taking a huge hit. Their assessed valuation is the lowest in the history of the District and will receive approximately $19,000 less this year, an amount that severely impacts their budget.
One of the key points was that there has been a reduction in taxable property and land value has gone way down. Perhaps close to half a million dollars. Over 120 lots in the Baca Grande subdivision near Crestone were taken over by the County (about $152,000 worth of vacant lot tax) and loss of property taxes in the amount of $360,000 from SLV Rural Electric moving equipment out of the county.
It was stated at the meeting that properties are so heavily milled, that many owners find it easier to just let them go, especially in the Baca, and the Baca determines a lot of the tax valuation for the County. Bill McClure, a former County Commissioner, said that a lot of the vacant property that exists in the Library District is taxed as “pastureland”, which is valued quite low.
The main thing that County Assessor Pete Peterson said, according to Kathy Geddes of the Library Board, is that one of the duties of the Assessor is to “discover any new construction in any way possible.” Westra’s concerns were whether the County has acted with due diligence in adding new construction to the tax rolls, and whether new construction is being assessed properly and in a timely manner. The Town of Saguache Administrator Pamela Fye, noting past failures to assess and collect revenues in 2012 and 2013 to the tune of $2.5 million, also raised questions about the reporting of construction. Those present directed their interrogations to Assessor Peterson and his assistant, former assessor, Jackie Stephens. According to Peterson new construction has plummeted. The town of Saguache has had virtually no construction. To discover any new construction in any way possible he also relies on other means of discovery, such as individuals telling the office about unassessed/untaxed properties. He said he is the only individual who is able to go out in the field to discover new construction and record it.
What is the reality?
A key point is that Peterson said construction has plummeted. However, that does not accurately depict what is happening according to the Baca Grand Property Owners Association (POA). The Land Use person, Connie Estrada, said there is quite a lot of construction. Two POA directors said there’s a boom going on. Shane Caverly, a respected builder who has been in the Baca 30 years, has a hands-on view of the reality happening on the ground. Not only is he very busy trying to finish building one house and then moving on to several in the pipeline, but he sees construction happening all over, other builders also quite busy with new construction. An interview with Charles Sommers, chairperson of the E&AC (Environmental and Architectural Committee), is eye-opening. There are, according to Sommers, currently 90-100 open permits for construction in the Baca, and this year alone there are about 20 new constructions that he has approved and inspected.
The process of discovery may be flawed
Peterson said his job is to go around and report on new construction. A field visit of property is required at least every five years by Colorado law. But using only on-the-hoof type of reporting or relying on what people tell him word-of-mouth may be inefficient and out of touch with the systems in place. Assessor, according to a Colorado government site, should spend the majority of their time collecting information about sales and leases in the county, information taken from surveys they create and which are filled out by taxpayers. From that data the assessor creates a statistical model to value all properties in the county. Perhaps that data could be made available.
The Assessor’s office also has a new computer system and software and they have streamlined the process between the Land Use, Treasurer and Assessor’s offices. Previously the Assessor had to go to Land Use to discover when a building permit was issued. With the new software, it shows up immediately. Peterson said the new system allows for faster communication among all departments. Sommers questioned why he is still driving around so much when County Land Use has a record of everything. At least on the front end.
Is the back end aligned with the front end?
The POA Land Use keeps a spread sheet on all open permits. When the POA approves a permit to build, a notification is sent electronically to the County and then the County issues a permit.
But when a building is complete the County has no termination date, according to Sommers. Do they record the outcome of the hundreds of permits issued throughout the county? Can there be a mechanism in place on the software to determine if construction is done and occupied? The County relies on the POA at the front end, but they also need to rely on it at the back end when the POA issues final paperwork indicating construction is complete. The County can then put it on the full tax roll, according to Sommers. Most counties have a building department and the inspector issues a final and then a certificate of occupancy—Saguache doesn’t.
A downward spiral or a faulty system?
The Board’s concern as well as that of those in attendance is how do we address this issue? Are we in a downward spiral, or is there a breakdown in getting revenue into the county? Is there inefficiency or poor discovery by the Assessor’s Office? A different formula may be needed for agricultural, private, commercial and pasture lands. Jackie Stephens said that in spite of the apparent losses, we may not see as much of a drop from last year as the preliminary numbers show. There has been an increase in the number of properties put on the tax rolls. This final number will be out around December 7, just before the County approves the 2017 budget on December 12.
Except for a few exchanges, the dialogue was mostly positive. As Westra said in her letter, they want to discuss ideas and possible solutions. Hopefully, the County, led by the Commissioners, doesn’t drop the ball.