The 63 Cougar Gulch landowners who had their assessments cut last month might want to wait before celebrating.
Kootenai County Assessor Marv Vandenberg is challenging the reductions granted by county commissioners in July. He said the action was unfair to the 330 homeowners who didn’t get reductions and on Wednesday filed an appeal with the State Tax Commission.
“If (commissioners) want to reduce them, fine,” Vandenberg said. “But they should treat everybody the same.”
His action sparked an ugly war between commissioners and the assessor’s staff.
The staff accused commissioners of mucking around in something they don’t understand to the detriment of taxpayers.
Commissioners, on the other hand, said the assessor’s staff was out of control and illegally setting assessments.
Commissioner Ron Rankin, a Republican, even said he’s ready to start a campaign to replace Vandenberg, a Democrat.
“This is sheer lunacy,” Rankin said. “The inmates are running the asylum. Vandenberg might as well not even be there.”
Caught in the middle are taxpayers.
The rural homeowners south of the Spokane River fought for months to have their assessments and the resulting property taxes lowered.
But assessors fear the reductions are unfair to taxpayers elsewhere in the county.
At issue is the way appraisers this year set values for rural land south of the river.
For assessment purposes, a homeowner’s rural land is divided into two categories: the 1-acre home site and all remaining land. If the remaining land is 5 acres or more, it may qualify for a tax exemption.
This year, appraisers increased the value of most landowner’s home sites to $60,000 or more. In some cases, appraisers reduced the value of the remaining land by about a third.
Commissioners contend that action was a backhanded attempt to shift the majority of the land’s value to the home site. As a result, taxes would increase because the land covered by exemptions would be worth substantially less.
“It’d be the same as taking all the value off your house and putting it on your lot,” Rankin said. “Then your homeowner’s exemption would be worthless.”
Rankin maintained such a shift violates state law.
But chief appraiser Greg Cade said commissioners misunderstood and were trying to deflect attention from the real issue.
Property assessments rose because Cougar Gulch’s housing market ballooned in recent years. Cade also said appraisers used a formula they’ve been following for a decade.
“What we did was raise the residential sites to market value,” Cade said. “That’s our job.”
Cade and Deputy Assessor Mike McDowell contend commissioners randomly lowered assessments for some landowners, but not for their neighbors.
They provided The Spokesman-Review with examples Wednesday.
In one, two neighbors both appealed their assessments to commissioners. One won, one lost.
The loser, a resident of Heine Road with about 5 acres, ended with a total land value of about $66,000. The winner, a resident of Meadowbrook Road with 10 acres, ended with a value of $29,320 after exemptions.
Based on last year’s tax rate, the homeowner with twice as much land would pay $504 less in property taxes.
“We don’t know why they did this,” McDowell said.
Commissioners took exception to the examples. Rankin called McDowell and Cade liars. Commissioner Dick Compton said their information was “disingenuous, absolutely erroneous and misleading.”
The commissioners were angry because the calculations assumed the landowners would get the tax exemptions, which actually are awarded by the state.
“They have no business playing tax man,” Compton said.
But commissioners themselves also counted on the exemptions; it’s the reason they thought the assessments were unfair.
Compton said the whole dispute boiled down to inflated “egos,” but said “there’s been absolutely no ego involved on my part.”
The state will review each case individually, beginning this fall. Dates for the appeals will be set later.