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Hundreds appeal property values

Property owners in Bonner and Kootenai counties once again have flooded commissioners with property value appeals.

The appeals dropped from last year’s record-breaking numbers, but commissioners still were surprised by the outcry. Commissioners in both counties hope that Idaho lawmakers take note and work on long-term property tax reform.

“I wish the Legislature would give us some different rules to work under,” Kootenai County Commission Chairman Rick Currie said.

Bonner County Commissioner Todd Crossett echoed that sentiment.

“We need to have tax reform at the state level,” Crossett said. “That’s driving a lot of this concern.”

Kootenai County has an estimated 800 appeals, about 200 fewer than last year.

Bonner County Assessor Jerry Clemons is dealing with about 960 appeals, but 250 already have been resolved. That’s a big reduction from last year’s record 2,700 appeals from unhappy property owners who argued the values were too high. The dissension led to an unprecedented step in Idaho tax history when the Bonner County commission rolled back property valuations to 2005 levels because they questioned the accuracy of the values offered by county Assessor Judie Conlan. Conlan stood by her employees and their assessments.

The state called a timeout and set up a compromise.

That meant that this year the Bonner County assessor’s office had to start over with a mass revaluation of all parcels, attempting to more adequately reflect how much each property could sell for on the open market.

Because the rollback stopped property owners’ ability to appeal, Clemons said he thinks some people are appealing this year just to make a point.

“Once we get through all this year that should settle that down,” he said.

The valuation and property tax fight carried into the 2006 county election, where Clemons, a Republican, ousted Conlan, a Democrat, for the assessor’s office. Two county commissioners, who initiated the rollback, also lost their seats.

Appeals are due by Monday, and county commissioners have until July 9 to hear each plea. Both Bonner and Kootenai Counties plan to ask the Idaho State Tax Commission for extensions, which would give county commissioners, acting as the board of equalization, time to hear each case.

Kootenai County commissioners started hearing appeals last week while Bonner County commissioners began Tuesday.

Property owners come armed with information – often recent property sales in their neighborhood – that they hope proves their valuation is too high. The assessor’s office provides information on why they believe the valuation is just. After hearing both sides, the board of equalization rules.

If the property owner or the assessor’s office remains unsatisfied, either may appeal to the Idaho State Board of Tax Appeals or file a complaint in district court. On rare occasions the Idaho Supreme Court will make the final determination.

Kootenai County Assessor Mike McDowell said he was surprised by the number of appeals, especially because the rise in property values wasn’t nearly as extreme as last year’s increase of about 40 percent.

The overall increase this year in Kootenai County is 13 percent.

Clemons couldn’t provide an overall increase amount for Bonner County. The total assessed value of property in Bonner County increased 69 percent from 2005 to 2006.

Even though commissioners are calling for property tax reform, the Legislature did make several efforts to help ease the problem of ever-increasing property values.

In 2006, lawmakers in Boise raised the homeowner’s exemption from property taxes for the first time since 1982, bumping the top amount to $75,000, up from $50,000. At the same time, they tied the exemption to the rate of inflation in Idaho home prices.

That means Idaho homeowners will get an $89,325 break this year. For example, a homeowner whose house is valued at $200,000 would pay taxes on just $110,675 of the value.

Also helping to lower property tax bills is a tax shift approved in a special session of the Legislature in 2006 that raised the sales tax to 6 percent while trimming $260 million in property taxes for all types of property owners, including homeowners, businesses, farms and utilities.

Combined, these measures helped reduce some property owners’ tax bills even as their property values increased.

But county officials argue it’s not a true solution to the problem.

“We are hoping the Legislature and the governor’s office are seeing this,” Crossett said. “We know our legislators here are. We hope Boise is seeing this and realizing we need to address the (entire) system.”

If there isn’t tax reform, Clemons hopes that state lawmakers at least update the board of equalization laws making it easier for the commission to hear appeals.

With the current tight deadline, he said a county can only realistically process about 150 appeals without having to ask for an extension.