by Lisa Cyriacks

The Saguache County Board of Commissioners has not yet responded to the correspondence from the Town of Crestone Trustees concerning increases in property taxes.  The Town sent a letter in June requesting approval for all abatement petitions and asking the commissioners to restore improvement values to 2012 values.

Property owners, citizens and the Town continue to be concerned about the impact on the community. Local businesses are adversely impacted by increased valuations and corresponding increases in property taxes. Some are closing their doors, requesting reclassification from commercial property to residential. For those considering closure, selling the property is not currently a viable option because taxes are so high.

The Saguache Assessor, Jackie Stephens, has not responded to the 2013 abatement petitions, although she has issued notices of determination for 2014 protests of valuation. Almost everyone who filed abatement petitions also filed a protest of their 2014 taxes.

According to Stephens, of the 2014 protests received on 98 properties, denials were issued on all but one. The exception was for a change in classification, with no change in the assessed valuation.

“Based on the 2013 audit performed by Wildrose Appraisals (on behalf of the State), there is no room for further adjustments than the County Board of Equalization’s adjustments made in 2013”, stated Stephens. “The audit from 2013 required the numbers countywide to fall within two statistical analysis ratios: Unweighted Median Ratio and a coefficient of dispersion”.

When questioned, Stephens affirmed that the end result of not meeting the statistical requirements defined by the audit, would be another reappraisal being triggered for 2014 valuations—similar to the reappraisals required by the State for 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Stephens explains her reluctance to change the valuations, “The Wildrose Appraisers warned that if one thing was changed, it would move the numbers outside the defined parameters in their report. The same would be true for 2014 as well as 2013.”

As far as the values agreed upon in the lawsuit, Stephens asserts that those values only had influence on the individual properties included in the lawsuit, and no influence on property values overall. “If the county accepted those agreed upon values included in the settlement as a basis, Saguache County would again be thrown into a reappraisal under the audit requirements.”

The Saguache Board of County Commissioners, sitting as the board of equalization, will conduct hearings on 2014 tax protests beginning at 9am on Thursday July 31, Friday Aug. 1 and Monday Aug. 4, as needed. According to Carla Gomez, Saguache County Clerk, 23 protests from 13 property owners. 

Former attorney Elaine Johnson is one of several property owners in a tax protest lawsuit filed against the county earlier this year. She questions the “blanket denial” of the 2014 protests by the county assessor and the deferment of a decision on the 2013 abatements. “The narrow margin of error that is driving this process only confirms that the appraisals were not done right. The county commissioners should make the decision to re-appraise the whole county. It is the only thing that would be fair. Another re-appraisal is exactly what is required.”

In reviewing the audit by Wildrose Appraisal Inc. and valuations gathered by Johnson for the lawsuit and abatement filings, a number of interesting factors came to light. According to Johnson’s research, valuations for commercial property throughout the county show disparity from $6.44 per square foot for commercial improvements in Center to $170.40 per square foot, the highest valuation for commercial improvements in Crestone.

The statistical analysis performed by Wildrose Appraisal Inc. relied on a procedural analysis and a statistical analysis using a coefficient of dispersion, i.e. comparison between data sets. In statistics the median is the number separating the higher half of the data sample from the lower half. In essence, the number needed to balance out $6.44 (the lowest valuation based on Johnson’s research) is $170.40 (the highest valuation based on Johnson’s research). In order to attain an equitable valuation it appears that the county is moving Crestone valuations higher to offset lower valuations in other parts of the county rather than bringing both numbers closer to the median.  

As you can see from the pie charts below, Crestone assessed valuations are about half of Center’s assessed valuations; but Crestone has a population of 132 as compared to Center’s population of 2,225.

Another example is vacant 50-foot commercial lots in Moffat valued at $60 versus vacant 50-foot commercial lots in Crestone valued at $40,000. According to the county assessor, the County Board of Equalization was able to reduce the original valuations in Crestone from $40,000 to $36,875 using the co-efficient of dispersion to keep values within State-accepted parameters while also lowering values.

Johnson’s comment, “The problem is that we are talking about real people, real property, and the reality of trying to make a real living, not just applying some formula that does not take into consideration of very real impacts on property owners. Some Crestone residents, who protested the high taxes in 2013 hoping for some relief, are now receiving tax sale notices placing their properties on the November tax sale, because they haven’t yet paid for 2013, hoping for a decision by the county on 2013 abatement petitions to lower values.”

State statues allow either the County Board of Equalization or the Assessor to deal with requests for changes in valuation. Stephens affirms that the County Board of Equalization could act independent of her recommendations. If the commissioners sitting as the equalization board deny the protests, keeping valuations and taxes at current levels, property owners can take their case to the State Board of Equalization, district court, or binding arbitration. At the time of going to press, the commissioners were unavailable for comment.