Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Hundreds appeal property assessments

Special session of Idaho Legislature may address issue in August

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County property values rose significantly for the second consecutive year in 2006, prompting a massive onslaught of appeals and cries from property tax relief advocates to turn up the heat on the Idaho Legislature.

"I'm ready to chain myself to the Capitol," Sarah Michael, chairwoman of the Blaine County Commission, said Monday. "The system is broken, and property tax payers need relief."

Michael said 380 property owners, including Sun Valley Co., which was assessed at $222 million, have appealed their assessments.

Similar protests have occurred throughout other resort areas in the state. Nearly 3,000 people in northern Idaho's Bonner County, where Coeur D'Alene is located, have appealed their property valuations. The actions led Idaho Gov. Jim Risch to call for a special session of the Legislature.

Blaine County property values jumped 18 percent (from $9.8 billion to $11.9 billion) this year, and 21 percent (from $8 billion to $9.8 billion) last year.

The county is trying to consolidate the appeals by neighborhood or location, with judgements being rendered in just 15 minutes.

"It's not rocket science," Michael said. "It's based on sales and market value. So, if the assessor has five comparable sales that show their assessment of a particular property, it doesn't take very long to make a decision."

Michael said the assessments, issued by County Assessor Valdi Pace, are "being upheld more often than not."

The necessity of the hearings has only added insult to injury.

"It's very disturbing and troubling," Michael said. "People who bought houses for $60,000 a long time ago are now being assessed for over a million dollars. Some people can no longer afford to stay here."

A major source of the problem is sales price disclosures, or the lack thereof. Idaho is a non-disclosure state, meaning sales data for real estate transactions doesn't have to be reported to county assessors.

Pace was tasked with issuing assessments based on data from just 13.6 percent of all real estate transactions that occurred in the county in 2005.

"If we don't have the information, how can we do a better job?" Pace asked in June.

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, has been hammering the Idaho Legislature about property tax reform since the early 1990s, when she was the executive director of the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau.

"In 1991, (real estate agent) Jed Gray and I went to the Legislature to ask for sales price disclosure and a real estate transfer tax," Jaquet said. "We got one vote."

Gray is a member of the Sawtooth Board of Realtors and the owner of Sun Valley Associates.

Jaquet has represented District 25, which includes Blaine County, since 1994. She has been a tireless advocate of property tax reform.

Jaquet said the special session has yet to be finalized, and, if it is held, it will likely occur over just two days in August.

"One of the problems I have is that it will be totally wired," Jaquet said, meaning that the bills will pass the way they are written. "We won't have a chance to look at the bills, and people don't get to comment."

Furthermore, the special session will likely not address sales price disclosure.

"I did talk to the governor about sales price disclosure when I saw him at a reception, and he said he was against the bill 20 years ago, and there was no reason to change his mind now," Jaquet said.

Instead, the session will address the removal of maintenance and operation costs, which could provide relief to taxpayers in certain counties. But whether that will include Blaine County remains to be seen, Jaquet said.

"My concern is that they won't treat Blaine fairly," she said.

Regardless of what happens in August, Jaquet said her efforts to provide relief in Blaine County will continue when the Idaho Legislature reconvenes in 2007.

In the meantime, she urged citizens to pressure local governing bodies to cut certain items from their budgets.

"People should be talking to elected officials about what they're doing this year and next year in regard to budgets," Jaquet said. "There should be more conversations about merging services."

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