Tom Hooker is using a 10-horsepower outboard motor to solve his property tax problems.
When Kootenai County told him the assessment on his Bayview float home would increase from $5,200 in 1994 to $24,000 in 1995, he appealed. When that failed, Hooker decided to add a motor and proclaim it a vessel.
“It’s basically nothing more than a pontoon boat,” Hooker says, motioning to the 51-foot-long floating white cottage, complete with flower boxes, that he purchased in 1978. “I tried to explain to the county commissioners that you can buy a pontoon boat for in excess of three-quarters of a million dollars, and if it’s 51 feet you only pay $91 for it” because you only have to buy a boat license.
If he makes the maneuver stick, it means Hooker can buy a boat license every year - at a price significantly lower than his personal property taxes.
That’s a miserable prospect for Assessor Tom Moore, considering it could prompt a stampede from the owners of the other 211 float homes in the county.
“I’m not happy with this situation,” said Moore, who is turning to the Idaho Tax Commission for answers and assistance.
But “whatever the law says will be done.”
Idaho law says a vessel is anything “used or capable of being used as transportation,” said Dave Hiatt, head of the boat licensing section for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. “The definition of what’s used or capable of being used, I guess, is in the eyes of the beholder.”
The catch is that no one appears to have tried this before. So no one has tested the definition of a vessel in the Idaho courts, said Lawrence Wasden, deputy Idaho attorney general assigned to the Tax Commission.
“This is really critical, because if it is a vessel, it is exempt from property taxes,” Wasden said.
The question may not matter this year. Idaho law says taxes are based on the official status of the property on Jan. 1. Hooker’s float house still was recorded as a float house then, so he probably cannot expect to escape paying personal property taxes this year.
No matter. He’ll just renew his boat license next year.
Hooker said he got the idea years ago when he heard about another float house in the neighborhood being registered as a boat. He didn’t make the move because a boat registration then cost about the same as personal property taxes. When his assessment quadrupled, however, he decided it was time to make the switch.
The significant jump is due to a reassessment, done last year, that showed float houses were worth a lot more than the county thought. After doing a study of float home sales in 1992 and 1993, the county realized it was out of compliance with the law because it so undervalued the float homes, said Gregory Cade, Kootenai County appraisal supervisor.
The appraised value of most float homes went up significantly, Cade said.
But of the 212 float home owners, only three appealed their new assessment.
One was reduced, Hooker’s remains the same and one is undecided.
Hooker says it’s not only a matter of money, but a matter of where the money goes.
Boat registration fees go back to particular lakes for improvements like docks, Hooker says.
Personal property taxes go to the general fund and Hooker, like other tax beleaguered citizens, thinks that’s a poor investment in government he sees growing out of control. “This was a deal the county needs to be called on,” Hooker said.
Jim McDonald, who owns the docks where Hooker ties up at McDonald’s Hudson Bay Resort, said there are 18 other float homes here.
Owners of those homes also have complained about their assessments.
He predicts they will follow Hooker’s lead if Hooker prevails.
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