In what may be an unprecedented step in Idaho tax history, Bonner County commissioners on Friday ordered their assessor to roll back all property valuations to last year’s figures.
Assessor Judie Conlan said commissioners gave her office a deadline of July 24 – a week from Monday – to undo this year’s assessments.
“It’s really putting our office in a tailspin,” Conlan said. “The commissioners have given me a monumental task. I don’t know if we can accomplish it in the time frame they’ve given us.”
Commissioners, who also sit on the county’s Board of Equalization, had a record number of property owners appeal their assessments.
The total assessed value of property in the county increased 69 percent from 2005 to 2006, shocking property owners and prompting 2,700 appeals. As commissioners have been hearing those appeals, they’ve decided more than half of the appealed assessments are too high and need to be lowered. That’s what convinced them something wasn’t right.
“We’ve gone through over 400 appeals,” Commissioner Karl Dye said. “Over 60 percent of the appeals we’ve heard have received downward adjustments. In our mind, that’s where the doubt came from.”
And of all those property values that commissioners agreed to lower so far, the county assessor’s office had recommended lowering the value 86 percent of the time, Dye said.
Still, Conlan defended her office’s assessments. “We believe our values are good values,” she said.
But Dye said in his presentation Friday that Idaho law requires boards of equalization to cancel any assessment the board deems “so incomplete or inaccurate as to render doubtful the collection of taxes thereon.”
So commissioners canceled all of this year’s assessments, except for assessments on new construction in the county.
Dye said the county will file appeals with the State Tax Board of Appeals on behalf of property owners who appealed the county’s assessments on new construction.
Ted Spangler, a deputy attorney general assigned to the Idaho Tax Commission, said state law and the Idaho Constitution require assessments be based on fair market value.
If county assessments stray too far from market value, Spangler said, the tax commission could order reassessments.
“It does not happen often that counties are so far out of compliance that the tax commission has to take that sort of action,” he said. “But it has happened before.”
Dye said he does have concerns about the county’s assessed values from last year not matching this year’s market value.
“In my mind, it’s sort of like which one is less compliant?” Dye said. “To go back to last year’s values which we know aren’t compliant or uphold this year’s values when we’re really doubtful about their accuracy?”
Dye said property owners who were at Friday’s meeting erupted in applause when the commissioners passed the resolution ordering the rollback.
But some aren’t optimistic that the decision will mean tax relief for property owners.
“Their jubilation is going to be short-lived when reality comes in and the state says all your categories are out of compliance,” said Kootenai County Deputy Assessor Rich Houser.
Houser said counties have the ability to assess properties in individual neighborhoods, but the state could come in and make broad-brush adjustments to entire categories – for instance, all rural subdivisions in the county.
That’s what happened in Kootenai County in the early 1980s when the county was out of compliance in that category.
And though property owners can appeal their county’s assessment, they have no such recourse once the state gets involved, he said. “It’s a sad thing for the property owners,” Houser said. “It’s something an assessor doesn’t want to have happen.”