Appraisal Company of Alaska’s Assessor Martin Onskulus meets with a few dozen residents to talk about the borough’s new assessments and his process on March 29, 2024, in Haines. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Chilkat Valley News)

It was a meeting that could have soured quickly. 

And there were signs that some people expected it to. Borough administration asked police Sgt. Josh Dryden to attend. He sat watching as a crowd gathered in the assembly chambers to meet the Chilkat Valley’s new assessor. 

Last year some 200 people appealed their property tax assessments, kicking off a long and contentious process that led to the borough ending its contract with its former assessor and forming a committee to help revamp its assessment process. 

Mayor Tom Morphet kicked things off at the community meeting on March 28 with an admonishment — maybe more of a plea — to the crowd to keep things civil. 

“As we enter this process, I just want to say that if … you’re feeling upset about this process and the way it works — I would like you to come to me and voice that to me,” he said. “If you have any questions, I’d like to take those to Martin [Onskulis].” 

Onskulis, the new assessor, works for Appraisal Company of Alaska, one of just two bidders who submitted proposals to take on Haines’ assessments in 2024. 

“The mayor will handle the emotional side of this process,” Morphet said. “But I would like you to respectfully encounter Martin; he’s a professional.” 

Onskulis spent the next two hours fielding questions from people in the audience. Many speakers said they had a lot of residual frustration from last year’s appraisal process. Many said they were not pleased with the results of this year’s either. Some 30% of assessments in the borough rose compared to last year’s. 

Blythe Carter asks a question about the latest property assessments during a meeting with the borough’s new assessor on March 29, 2024, in Haines. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Chilkat Valley News)

Toward the end of the meeting, many in the room had visibly relaxed and were smiling at Onskulis, including Blythe Carter, who has been active in the push to reform the borough’s assessment process as part of the informal Haines Citizens Advisory Group. 

“I just want to apologize if we seem really gun-shy and defensive,” she said to Onskulis. “We got really trampled last year and so we’re very, very worried about the process this year. There was a great deal of intimidation, of simply not listening to us.” 

Onskulis described how he had revalued residential properties in town. Those new values, and a data sheet on individual properties that shows the property details his company used to come up with the current assessments, will be mailed directly to property owners in town, according to Borough Clerk Alekka Fullerton. Later in the summer Onskulis’ company plans to revalue land parcels and commercial properties in the borough as well. 

Residents might notice some changes on their assessments this year. For example, buildings on their properties are being valued separately now. 

“Before you just had this house square footage and now you … see the value of the house, and the garage,” he said. “It’s split up. You can really see the breakdown of how each building is valued.” 

A handful of people pressed Onskulis on issues they said they ran into during last year’s assessment process. Norm Hughes said he had such a long and frustrating back-and forth with the borough that he eventually dropped his appeal. 

“I really didn’t get interaction until it was moose season practically and I had other things to do and five months seems like a long time to wait for the department to call me back,” he said. “When they did contact me it was all real assessor jargon and stuff and I had asked them to dumb it down for me via email and [I] still really didn’t understand. So I just gave up.” 

Onskulis said he likes to keep things simple as he showed the crowd examples of what he generally brings to an appeal hearing. 

“My goal is to work with property owners and resolve the appeals. I want to go fishing. There’s moose season,” he said.

Another resident told Onskulis that she owns a vacant 2.5 acre lot in the middle of a landslide. She said its assessment went up by hundreds of dollars this year, even though the state has deemed the property unusable. 

“We will take a look at that,” Onskulis said. “Just call me.” 

That was a message he repeated throughout the evening: if there’s a problem, call Onskulis first. The fix might involve an appeal, or it may be something he can adjust instead. 

Any adjustments to the value of a property must go through an appeal process though. “It’s just a form that you fill out and then we can change the value,” he said. 

One question several people have asked about their assessments is how the age of their properties is being calculated. It sometimes differs dramatically from the year the property was actually built. 

That’s the difference between a property’s actual age calculated from the year it was built until now – and its effective age. 

“Over the years … you probably have, you know, changed your windows, maybe new siding or updated the kitchen or improved all these things. That is your effective age. Again, effective age – I have a schedule for how it’s being calculated but it’s being calculated using math and also the opinion of the assessor,” he said. 

Because the assessor is working with limited data, and the process is inherently subjective, Onskulis repeatedly said that it’s important to reach out and correct any inaccuracies and provide as much data as possible. 

Several people had detailed questions about his process, including Katie Emma Begley who asked how he would determine his “comps” or comparable homes. Comps are basically yardsticks that help measure whether an assessment is in line with the values of other similar properties during an appeal. 

Onskulis told her the main things he looks at is the square footage of a home, and generally at other homes in the subdivision around the home. 

After the meeting, Begley said she was cautiously hopeful that things will go better than they did last year. 

Onskulis asked residents to trust him. He said his company has applied the same techniques they used this year in Haines all over Alaska. 

“Is it perfect? No it’s not. It will never be perfect just because you have so many different properties and there’s so many different locations for these properties,” he said. “It will never be ideal. We’re improving what we have currently. But, I’m not seeing how we could [ever] get to something that would work and be fair for everybody. We’re doing the best we can but it’s just the nature of the job in Alaska.”