Residents angry over assessments

By Jason Ferguson

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Royed Hollick’s assessed property value on his property in rural Custer County jumped $143,000 in the past year. This, without him having done a single thing to add to its value, he said.

Hollick was one of three Custer County residents who came before the Custer County Commission at the commission’s May 1 meeting upset about the increase in their tax bill. The other two were David and EJ Reid, all of whom used the public comment portion of the meeting to bemoan the sharp increase in their taxes.

Hollick laid into the county’s department of equalization, saying there is a problem in the office. Hollick said the department “has a computer program they don’t know how to use” (constant turnover in the office has led to some department employees who are not fully-trained on the Computer-Assisted Mass Appraisal program, and getting tech support for the system has been a challenge, said department director Patty Caster ). 

He also said the department has notes from assessors and gradings for properties that don’t agree with each other, and they cannot or will not explain why the notes and gradings do not match up.

“That’s not my problem. That’s equalization’s problem,” Hollick said. “There’s a problem with your equalization assessment.”

Caster has been warning about the impending assessment increases since December 2017, when she told the commission  many of the structures in Custer County had not been assessed at their market value for at least two years. The result, she said, is the county being noncompliant of state law and facing the possibility of the state intervening.

At that time, Custer County’s non-agricultural median ratio sat at 82.4 percent. That means a home that sells for $100,000 in Custer County on average is assessed only at $82,400 of its value.

By law, the county has to be at least 85 percent of market value on its ratio. The closer the county gets to 100 percent on its ratio, the better the adjustment factor it receives. Full and true property assessments are adjusted (the adjustment can be positive or negative) to give them a taxable value for equalization. Sales of properties throughout the county of the previous year are used to determine the sales ratio, which in turn gives the adjustment factor.

Caster warned the commission that big jumps were coming—whether the county imposed them or the state did—and those jumps are  now being realized on residents’ assessments.

Hollick said he understood the assessments had to rise, but said be believes, even accounting for the jump of the low assessment, his bill should have risen only $11,000, not the 30 percent it did.

“That’s $1,800 out of my pocket for the year,” he said.

David Reid said he felt like he had been “stonewalled since the beginning” and has been given the runaround from the director of equalization office.

One of Reid’s big complaints was that the equalization office changed his home from a story and a half to a two-story home. When asked for the rationale from the equalization office, he said he was not offered one. Research on criteria to meet the definition of a one-and-a-half story home leads him to believe his home fits that description, he said. He didn’t feel the $97,000 jump in his assessment was justified. At most, he said, a $30,000 difference between the two would be warranted.

“Whenever they need more money, it seems they come out (to assess) us first,” Reid said of the Rocky Knolls area.

Reid said he asked for the rationale again at the recent assessment appeals, but alleged he again was given no information. Instead, he said, he was told by commissioner Jesse Sorenson, “It costs a lot to live in Custer.”

“Nobody has to tell me that. I live here,” Reid said.

Hollick did not appeal his assessment, insisting the problem lies in the equalization office. 

“So it’s just, ‘Oh well. A mistake was made. No big deal,’” he said.

“You missed the appeal date,” commission chairman Jim Lintz said.

After the meeting, Lintz released a statement regarding the rising property assessments, in which he said the “concerns of the public are justified.”

“Each one of us has the right to question why our taxes are going up and the method used to come to that determination,” he said.

Lintz said the short-term answer of “following the  established  process” is easily misconstrued as a shield of defense. While this is the recognized  way to challenge taxes, he said, it is only a subset of the due diligence the commission needs to follow when dealing with taxpayers’ concerns.

“Please be assured that the solution being pursued may initiate with the short-term response, but will expand exponentially to the entire gamut involved, regarding assessed valuation,” he said.

“While human error can always be a component, the system used to analyze over 14,000 parcels also involves substantial reliance on software in arriving at prescribed worth,” he said. “Based on the public’s [and the board’s] concerns we are investigating whether there is a better product to meet the needs of the county.”

Lintz added the county is committed to delivering the best public service it can, and customer service is paramount to running county offices.

“To that end, we intend to provide additional training to our employees,” he said. “The board of commissioners as well as the entire county staff is resolved in our commitment to the public service entrusted to us.”