Longer appeal periods, more data on assessment mailings, and an appointed board of equalization could be among a slew of code changes regarding how property taxes are assessed in the borough, as recommendations from an ad hoc committee begin to take shape.
The recommendations follow upheaval in the borough’s tax assessment process. A steep rise in some property assessments last year resulted in sharp criticism from some citizens, and ultimately led the assembly to vote not to renew its contract with an assessor.
The ad hoc committee, composed of Glenda Gilbert, Dan Humphrey, Stacey Prior, assembly member Kevin Forster, and chaired by Paul Rogers, met on Monday to go over recommendations for amendments to borough code. Rogers said the ideas he brought to the committee were based on reading of borough codes around the state, and said the committee made “good progress” at Monday’s meeting.
One recommendation that seemed to have wide approval from the committee was to have an appointed board of equalization, the board that adjudicates disputes over assessed values. The board was a flashpoint through the summer and fall for critics of the assessment process. It consistently sided with the assessor’s values.
Rogers said most other boroughs don’t use the assembly for their board of equalization, in part because it sets up a block in communication.
“They’re caught in the predicament of not being able to represent their constituents because they can’t talk to members anymore once they become appellants,” said Rogers.
He suggested a board of equalization made up of five to nine members with experience in construction, property management and development, insurance, banking or real estate. Of those members, three would be named to sit on individual appeals, and could make a ruling based on a majority vote. Members would be paid $100 per meeting. The committee didn’t approve any formal recommendations Monday, after getting caught in discussions about terms and appointments, but Rogers said he hoped to pick up that discussion and resolve the issue Wednesday.
The committee also discussed ways to improve the process of mailing assessment notices after some residents complained of not getting adequate notice of assessment hikes in time to appeal.
The borough used a Utah-based company last year to mail assessment notices. The company charged slightly less than a Juneau-based company would, but members of the committee decided that the risk of mail delays to Haines made the cost “insignificant,” in the words of Rogers.
The committee did approve a proposed amendment requiring that all information about a property and notice of a board of equalization meeting be given to appellants at least 10 days before a hearing. Rogers said over the last year, several appellants were surprised when meetings were scheduled at the last minute and property assessment values were changed.
Rogers brought several other code change recommendations to the committee that will be discussed more at the next meeting including:
A requirement that once an appeal with the board of equalization has been scheduled, no assessment corrections can be made.
Appeals must be treated as single property appraisals, instead of relying on aggregate data from computer-assisted mass appraisal.
Exempting structures like root cellars, gardens, chicken coops, and fencing from assessments.
Requiring all information from the assessor’s office be made available to the appellant at least 10 days before the board of equalization hearing.
Borough officials defended their tax assessments this year, saying they relied on more consistent data from known home sales, and that their new home inspections were based on rigorous methods of data input. They pointed out that tax burdens for most payers rose little or none.
But borough manager Annette Kreitzer acknowledged that its communication with residents had sometimes been inadequate and created a feeling of animosity.
Mayor Tom Morphet, who attended the beginning of Monday’s hearing, told the committee that Haines was far from the only community dealing with a sharp rise in assessments. He recently returned from the Alaska Municipal League conference in Anchorage, where he said he met with several other community leaders.
“We’re caught in this weird situation where the laws are not built for this situation where property values are skyrocketing,” he said.
He also suggested that Haines could require property sale prices be publicly disclosed. Currently, the borough is relying on about 200 property sales from the past five years to calibrate assessments, which the current assessor, Michael Dahle, acknowledged wasn’t ideal
Morphet’s suggestion didn’t receive further discussion from the committee, but Rogers said he would be open to the idea.
Rogers said he hoped to get most of the recommendations out to the assembly by early next year.
“I’m hopeful we will have a majority of things that are critical and easy to do by mid to late January,” he said.