State unhappy with the time it is taking to get properties on tax rolls

by Matie Belle Lakish

Saguache County Assessor Jackie Stephens’ office has been under pressure for over a year because of law suits filed by local citizens and other taxing entities within the county that contend that assessments have not been completed in a timely manner. This has resulted in lower revenues to the county, schools and other tax-supported districts. The State of Colorado has now notified the county that, because county assessments were lower than they should have been, Saguache County may need to reimburse the state for school funds sent to local districts. Schools are funded according to a state formula that allows a higher payment rate for counties with less tax revenue.

Entities that have previously brought lawsuits against the county over this issue include the Baca Grande Water and Sanitation District and Terry and Trish Cole. Others expressing concern include the Northern Saguache Library District. Both Water and San. and the library district contend that they have lost needed tax revenue because many properties, which have homes on them, are still being taxed as vacant land.

According to a “Final Report and Recommendations for Saguache County” filed by JoAnn Groff, Property Tax Administrator for the State Board of Equalization, filed on October 25, 2012, “The Baca Grande Water and Sanitation District (District) stated that they had formally contacted Assessor Stephens and the Saguache County Commissioners in early 2011 regarding approximately 108 properties that were improved with residences or other buildings, but were assessed as vacant land.  At a May 19, 2011 meeting Ms. Stephens assured the District representatives that she would correct the records by July 1, 2011, and notify the owners of omitted property value for 2011 as well as tax year 2010.  However, throughout the summer and fall of 2011, repeated requests for documentation, including an Open Records Request on October 6, 2011, either went unanswered or prompted excuses regarding computer system problems.  On November 15, 2011, the District representatives attended a county commissioner’s meeting and were once again assured that the properties would be added to the current tax warrant roll.  On December 9, 2011, the District had not received any documentation that the promised valuations were complete, and had not been provided any update regarding the status of the project.  It was at that time that they submitted their complaint.”

The report further states, “Saguache County received a State Board of Equalization Order (Order) for Residential Property in October of 2011.  As having a complete and accurate inventory of residential properties is essential to the completion of the Order, it seemed reasonable that the investigation of the complaint, and the correction of the underlying problem, could be completed simultaneously.”

Since that time, Ms. Stephens’ office has been required to work with the state Property Tax Administrator’s office to complete the assessments. However, according to Groff, her assistants, Cherice Kjosness, Lead Investigator and Curtis Belcher, Appraiser, “reviewed the sales on the Residential Master Sales List and some reasons for disqualification seemed inconsistent with the related facts in public record.  The assessor was asked to reconfirm 35 sales.  Of these, 24 were changed from disqualified to qualified, significantly increasing the number of sales of residential property to be considered in the statistical analysis.” “Then, in July of 2012, DPT staff discovered that the assessor was not using the CAMA system tables in the county’s current computer system.  She was instead using an Excel spreadsheet developed from sales data to extract base rates.  The calculated values for the new improvements for both the sold and the unsold properties were then inserted into the administrative side of the system.  This practice calls into question the validity of the assessor’s value uniformity.” In other words, many properties that should have been classed as residential were not, and the state computer program for assessing properties was not being used.

Assessor Stephens has consistently cited major problems using the state’s computer program. Part of this problem may be attributed to the county’s outdated computers, as well as local connectivity issues.

In summary, the report states, “It is the conclusion of the division that there is sufficient evidence that the Saguache County Assessor has not diligently and correctly discovered and listed the new construction of improvements in the county or various municipal and special district jurisdictions for well over 15 years.  Further, when these improved properties sold, the sales were indiscriminately disqualified so that the results of the assessment audit were skewed. These actions by the county assessor violated the following statutes: §39-5-101, C.R.S.  Duties of the Assessor: The assessor failed to list all taxable real and personal property located within her county on the assessment date.”

At a hearing held on November 15, 2012, the State Board of Equalization heard testimony that “Cherice Kjosness, designated supervisor for the reappraisal, stated that the reappraisal order was not complete. She further testified that the Abstract of Assessment for 2012 was not correct, as documented evidence showed that residential improvements had been omitted from the tax warrant for multiple years. In addition, the correct payback to state equalization payments made to the school districts in the county could not be calculated as required”, “nor could reimbursement to the state of the cost of the reappraisal be submitted”.

“Jacqueline Stephens, Saguache County Assessor, testified on behalf of the county, indicating that she and her staff had worked hard on the reappraisal, but had not been able to complete the reappraisal as agreed to in the reappraisal plan submitted to the state board on December 15, 2011.”

According to a report of the Board of Equalization’s hearing, “The property tax administrator, JoAnn Groff, recommended that the 2011 Order of Reappraisal be extended for residential property in Saguache County, and, that the statutorily required payback of both the state equalization payments to the school districts and the reimbursement for the costs of the reappraisal be similarly extended, including interest.”

The State Board of Equalization agreed with Groff’s recommendation, and ordered that all residential property in Saguache County “be reappraised during the property tax year commencing January 1, 2013. The value so determined shall be the actual value of the taxable property for 2011 and 2012.”

In a separate order on the same day, the Board ordered that all other types of property, which are non-residential, must be reappraised the following year, 2014. This will include agricultural, mining, vacant land, and all other classifications.

“To ensure compliance with this order, the staff of the division will be given full access to all systems and information used by the assessor’s office. It is further ordered that a plan for this reappraisal be submitted to the state board for their approval in no less than thirty days from the date of this order.”

While it is not yet clear how much latitude the local assessor will have to run her own office in the coming year, it is expected that the state will have a much more “hands on” relationship with Saguache County than it has in the past. As noted, the county will bear expenses for the state’s involvement.