County, State at Odds Concerning Property Values

The State Tax Commission and county government are preparing for battle over property tax values in Texas County, several officials confirmed this week.

The State Tax Commission, which already is withholding three quarters of payments to the county for reimbursement on work on the tax system, has warned members of the Texas County board of equalization – the final local authority on the tax system – that some values are artificially low. Ultimately, the issue may end up in Texas County Circuit Court. There also are indications that the state may continue to cut off funding – about 50 percent of the cost of operations – for the assessor’s office. Such a move would result in cutbacks in the office, predicted County Commissioner Joe Whetstine on Tuesday.

Members of the board of equalization – the county’s three commissioners, the county surveyor and two residents appointed by the commission – met Monday to discuss the matter. On a vote of 2-4, a motion to approve the state’s order was turned down. Commissioners Don Shelhammer and Whetstine voted “yes”

County Assessor Debbie James said the state’s order would increase the assessed value of the county by about $24 million. “I am not going to do that to my taxpayers,” she said of her decision not to comply with the April 30 order of the three-member State Tax Commission.

An official at the State Tax Commission withheld comment late Monday on the issue, but said in its earlier letter that it is empowered by state law to enforce property tax laws in Missouri and to make sure assessments reflect market values.

In the letter to the county, the State Tax Commission said residential property less than five acres are undervalued in the county and should be increased by two-fold. Residential rates are appraised at 20 percent below fair market, it said. The three-member panel said figures must be adjusted upward following a reassessment of property that it ordered be completed by the county assessor. The latest deadline was Saturday, May 31. James said she turned the numbers in at the start of business Monday.

James said Tuesday that of the 118 parcels reviewed by the State Tax Commission before its order, 75 were old data from 2005 and did not include her office’s latest reviews. At a meeting last month, James said she asked that she be allowed to conduct another review using current data. “They asked for an offer of what we would accept. I just can’t throw a number out without a detailed study,” she said.

Robert Epperson, manager of technical assistance with the State Tax Commission, said the parcel-by-parcel review was not accomplished in a timely manner, and eventually the Jefferson City body sent in extra help to assist James.

Epperson said every two years a random review of property values is conducted by the State Tax Commission. Field appraisals are completed of agriculture, residential and commercial property and a comparison made to the figures on the book. In 2005, Epperson said the values were deemed “extremely low” and the assessor was ordered to complete a detailed review of parcels for 2007.

In May 2006, the commission wrote James, “We realize that the assessment issues you face were inherited by you; however, due to the seriousness of the concerns with your assessment program, we are sending a compliance order.”

On Monday, Epperson said progress is lacking. “We have been working with the assessor down there to get that field review completed,” he said. “We had worked on an agreement as to a time frame that it would be completed, and it was not accomplished within that time frame.” The deadline was originally Dec. 31. James said this week that the deadline for completion came with numerous setbacks, including significant rainfall, ice storms and flooding.

In September, the county’s school superintendents complained to the State Tax Commission, assessor and county commission about the length of the review and fluctuations in values that made it difficult to budget its tax monies.

The State Tax Commission pays half of the cost of maintaining the tax rolls in the county through an appropriation process from the Missouri General Assembly.

In a letter to taxpayers last year, James wrote that she was resisting a wholesale increase in the ratio used to calculate property values because it would have brought hefty tax increases to property owners. She instead opted to conduct the parcel-by-parcel review.

With about 500 parcels remaining last week, James has since turned in the balance, Epperson said he was told by the county. He noted that the state body was still waiting to hear from the county whether it would abide by its order made in April.

So what happens if the county doesn’t increase the residential rates and lot values? “That is what I am at not liberty to discuss,” Epperson said.

The county clerk’s office, by state statute, is to receive the property value books by May 31 so it can begin the process to get the tax bills to owners by Nov. 1. The data is compiled, and eventually the county collector mails the statements to property owners.

State Tax Commission order to the assessor of Texas County on April 30.

Texas County Commission’s letter to the State Tax Commission on May 15.

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