Alaska Sen. Jesse Kiehl, who represents Skagway, Haines and Juneau. (Photo from Senate Majority Flickr)

An advocacy push by Haines residents frustrated over the property tax assessment process has led a state senator to announce a pending bill to codify some of their requests in state law. 

Sen. Jesse Kiehl made an announcement in his Feb. 3 newsletter “Real Deal with Jesse Kiehl.” He said his bill would include provisions to require state accreditation or certification of tax assessors, would make appointed boards of equalizations standard, and would ban municipalities from raising assessments during the appeals process, among other recommendations. 

“It wasn’t everything we asked for, but I think it’s reasonable,” said Haines resident Brenda Josephson, “I was very pleased to see it in writing.”

The borough faced intense pushback after this year’s assessments, which resulted in steep increases to some properties. Borough officials said the increases were a result of fairer assessments and corrections to outdated assessments, but some residents said they found that assessments weren’t in line with property sales. And, they attacked the borough’s contract assessor, Michael Dahle, who they had made statements they interpreted as threatening after they appealed their assessments. 

In December, the assembly voted not to renew Dahle’s contract at the end of the year. 

Frustrated residents started organizing this summer. Paul Rogers, whose daughter and son-in-law’s property saw a steep assessment increase, advertised informal meetings for frustrated residents. 

The group eventually decided that Rogers would focus on local advocacy, while Josephson would lobby representatives in the legislature. 

Josephson met with Kiehl and state representative Andi Story several times since the summer to push for changes in state law. In November, she co-published a white paper with Juneau attorney Greg Adler about problems they saw in the assessment process and proposed legislative fixes. 

Several of those changes made it into Kiehl’s proposal, including the provision about appointed boards of equalization. Currently, the assembly serves as the board of equalization, which Josephson said hampers appellants’ first amendment rights, since they cannot speak directly to their representatives about the issue when they are being adjudicated by them. 

Another recommendation advocated by Josephson that is set to be in Kiehl’s bill is that municipalities would be required to adopt and publish their official standards for assessments. And, the bill would require assessors be certified in the state of Alaska by Alaska Association of Assessing Officers. Dahle, the contract assessor, did not have an active certification in Alaska, though he had decades of experience working as an assessor. 

Kiehl’s bill, according to his newsletter, would also prevent assessors from raising the value of a property during an appeal. That happened during Rogers’ daughter’s appeal, when the property was reassessed from $616,000 to $864,000 and then to $1.1 million. Kiehl said that usually reassessments are done in good faith, “because the government took a closer look and learned about a bigger deck or a new mother-in-law apartment. But it can also come across as threatening; a way to scare off citizens from appealing.” 

Josephson said that some of the changes didn’t go as far as she was hoping, but the bill has yet to be released. 

Meanwhile, a parallel effort to change some borough code concerning assessments is expected to be on the Feb. 13 assembly agenda. The mayor appointed an ad hoc committee to look into potential fixes to issues during this year’s assessment process. 

The committee forwarded recommendations to the clerk, Alekka Fullerton, who said it was mistakenly not included in a previous assembly agenda. Mayor Tom Morphet acknowledged his responsibility for the issue and said it would be included in the upcoming meeting agenda, which will be published on the borough’s website.