by Lisa Cyriacks

Crestone and Baca Grande residents have flooded the County Assessor’s office with at least 121 abatement petitions and property tax protest forms.

The abatement petitions are the result of high assessments and a lawsuit filed against the County in February by retired attorney Elaine Johnson and several other Crestone residents. The lawsuit was based on the claim that valuations made earlier this year were in violation of Colorado statutes.

In June, the plaintiffs decided to withdraw a contempt motion against Saguache County for failing to comply with a court order issued in the settlement of the lawsuit. The lawsuit against the County Assessor and the County Board of Equalization (The Board of County Commissioners serve as the Board of Equalization for Saguache County) established comparables that petitioners think should be used in the valuation process for all properties in Crestone/Baca, not just those included in the lawsuit.

By agreeing to settle the lawsuit, the Assessor, the State Property

Tax Division and the County Commissioners accepted these values as valid.

Contempt motion

Elaine Johnson, after speaking with her attorney Jeffrey Robbins, commented that Judge Martin Gonzales made it clear that he believed the County was in substantial compliance and would not hold Saguache County Assessor Jackie Stephens in contempt. This led her and her fellow plaintiffs to believe that pursuing the contempt citation was not worthwhile.

While plaintiff Elaine Johnson says she feels dropping the motion was the right decision, she added that property owners should “expect public officials to follow orders precisely” and now hopes Saguache County Assessor Jackie Stephens will move forward on the abatements in a timely fashion.

Where government officials are concerned, Johnson pointed out, taxpayers should have high expectations because “when the rules are bent and broken pretty soon the whole fabric of society will break down. I can’t believe how willing people are to accept the unacceptable. When we lower our expectations, performance goes downhill.”

Johnson has elected to persist and has aided several property owners in calculating valuations and completing abatement petitions. Most property owners have also elected to file protests for current year valuations in addition to abatement petitions for 2013 and 2012.

Town of Crestone concerns

At a recent Crestone Town Council meeting, trustees decided to address key points raised by the Saguache County Commissioners regarding the controversial 2013 valuations. In earlier correspondence, the trustees had requested that the County honor the methods and processes used to derive valuations in the recent settlement of the lawsuit—methods and processes that should have been used in the 2013 valuations rather than State-directed valuations.

The Board of County Commissioners acknowledges that the appropriate procedure for property owners is to apply for an abatement of taxes. They also assert that the 2013 valuations were part of a State-ordered process and were done in accordance with State requirements.

In response to suggestions that these problems could be resolved by the Town changing zoning regulations, limiting build-outs, use of lot-consolidation or other rezoning considerations, the Town asserts that the County Commissioners could resolve the question of valuations by approving the abatement petitions and restoring improvement values to 2012 values.

Colorado law provides that “every petition for abatement or refund filed pursuant to section 39-10-114 shall be acted upon pursuant to the provisions of this section by the Board of County Commissioners or the Assessor . . . ”(C.R.S. 39-1-113(1.7).

Property owners, citizens and the town council continue to be concerned about the impact on the community. Local businesses are adversely impacted by increased valuations and corresponding increases in property taxes. Many are considering closing their doors, and these properties will be difficult to sell because taxes are so high.

A second issue raised is the devaluation of improvements and increased land values. Sales data for the period shows a slow but relatively stable market. When the Assessor made the decision arbitrarily to decrease values of homes and increase land values, lending agencies lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of collateral. This will adversely impact those who try to finance or refinance properties in the area.

Insurance companies rely on County assessment records to appraise values for policies on homes, and could argue that they will pay only the significantly decreased 2013 assessed values rather than the cost or true value of the improvement. This could result in injurious insurance settlements on property that has been erroneously de-valued.

Abatements and refunds may only be filed in the two years after January 1 of the year following the year in which taxes were levied. C.R.S. § 39-10-114 (1)( a) (I)( A). In most cases, this means that during calendar year 2014, a petitioner may only request an abatement or a refund for tax years 2012 and/or 2013. However, there may be an exception if taxes for years prior to 2012 were levied based on retroactive increases in valuation through a Special Notice of Valuation.

To file for an abatement or refund of taxes, the owner/petitioner must complete Section I of the “Petition for Abatement or Refund of Taxes.” Forms for abatement are available at the County Assessor’s office or online at: www.colorado.gov/cs/Satellite/DOLA-Main/CBON/1251590806926.

Update:  As we go to press, people who had requested an abatement to their 2013 taxes and protested their 2014 taxes report they are receiving certified letters from the county. It appears that the petitions protesting the 2014 tax evaluations are being denied. This is before there has been any determination made on their request for abatement for their 2013 taxes.  According to Assessor Stephens, this is because there is a statutory deadline requirement of June 30th to reply to petitions, while the county has 6 months from the filing of abatements to respond to them. However, the assessor’s office says they will begin addressing the abatement requests soon. Whether they are approved or denied, they go to the commissioners for approval.

The Town of Crestone has requested a meeting with the County Commissioner to try and resolve these issues.