Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Property taxpayer?s association needed

By DENNIS WRIGHT, Blaine County Commission chairman

On Wednesday, Aug. 18, the Blaine County Board of Equalization?same membership as the County Commission?finished the task for which it was reconvened, namely, attempting to equalize the valuations of real property in this county to market values as of Jan. 1, 2004. The BOE was reconvened be-cause we chose to address our local problem as opposed to having the State Tax Commission do it for us. Our problem was that much of the county was un-der appraised when compared to the actual marketplace in the ratio studies that the State Tax Commission performs annually. The Assessor?s Office tried to address the various categories of property that were out of compliance by raising the valuations on thousands of parcels throughout the county. They suc-ceeded except for category 20, which are residential lots within the cities. In order to correct the problem, we reconvened, with permission from the state, and revised the values on those lots where we had evidence from sales, that the valuations were still too low. Property was affected in all five of the communities in the county, from Carey to Sun Valley. The actions taken did bring category 20 into compliance and the total adjustments to county valuations during 2004 amounted to $1.332 billion. Blaine County is now valued at $8.061 billion. Yes, we are talking billions!

This process was unprecedented to my knowledge and resulted from the real estate ?bubble? that most of the nation is experiencing. In my opinion, this runaway market is caused by several factors. First, the Federal Reserve, run by Chairman Greenspan has kept interest rates at 40 year lows for far too long, attempting to keep the system going by providing unlimited credit expansion for both the government and private sectors. The bubble in real estate is just the latest manifestation of our maladjusted, credit induced economy. Remember the Nasdaq? It will go on until it doesn?t and property values will have to be adjusted to reflect the market place. Everyone should be aware that 2004 prices are indicating more adjustment is in our future. A second factor was the deci-sion in 1996 to remove the capital gains tax on profit from the sale of one?s home. This has turned at least 50% of our population into transient ?investors.? A third factor is that old human trait called greed and the attempt to get rich without really working for it.

During the BOE we had the privilege of meeting over a hundred residents who appealed their valuations. Most of these fine people simply needed an ex-planation of how and why we got to this point. The double assessment was probably the hardest to understand. I believe most went away with less worry and concern than when they came in but are still wary until the actual tax bill arrives in November. I would like to assure people that all property taxes are capped year to year with a 3% maximum raise and that all property taxes are spent for local needs. The state does not share in the proceeds.

People are definitely making the connection between valuations and taxes. Obviously a higher valuation will bring a higher tax, but that will be moderated by the fact that your higher value was part of the 19.8%, $1.332 billion raise shared by your neighbors and other property throughout the county. Many asked if solutions to control spending were being looked into. The sad answer is probably a big NO! We seem to buy into a single government model and continue to perpetuate it. Some ideas that should be looked into are:

The merging of fire departments in the valley. Bellevue is only the latest entity to go for a paid fire chief, simply because Hailey, Ketchum, and Sun Val-ley have one. Why doesn?t Hailey, Bellevue, and Wood River Rural create a single entity to address fires in the South Valley? Why do we need three depart-ments, all going to the same events, tripping over themselves to help out when an event occurs?

The north end of the valley is hardly any better. There are three more departments up there, all trying to do the same thing.

Law enforcement is just as bad, operating on a 1950 model. Each City spending hundreds of thousands to copy their neighbor. A single entity in law en-forcement could work for the taxpayers? interest but that doesn?t seem to be the goal of the elected officials. Bellevue could become a model if they chose to be a leader instead of a follower. They could eliminate a poorly staffed Marshall?s Office and contract with the Sheriff?s Office for law enforcement. Cover-age would increase and costs would go down. The only way any of these ideas will ever happen is if the taxpayers of this valley organize and demand that they happen. There is the challenge and until it happens, be prepared to pay more and more taxes for duplicative services.

One avenue may be to create a Blaine County Property Taxpayer?s Association that would represent property owners at budget hearings each year before the cities, county and other taxing districts. A well organized effort would remind the elected people that someone is actually watching and does have an in-terest in the outcome of decisions supposedly made in your interest. I believe many of the local politicos forget who they are representing until it?s time to ask for votes again to keep them in office. Another problem I?ve seen surface is that of allowing staff employees to set policy direction when that should be the domain of the elected body. In more cases than not, staff people tell the elected body what to do. That?s backwards from where it ought to be and the main reason why things don?t change, regardless of who is elected. I?ll be waiting to see who accepts the challenge to organize this idea. My $10 membership will be in an envelope awaiting an address!

I hope I?ve answered some questions with this letter. Please call me at 788-5500 if you have more questions or ideas on how we could make things better in Blaine County.

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