Contempt citation filed on property tax settlement procedures

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by Matie Belle Lakish

Confusion seems to be the best description of the tax assessment process in Saguache County, as yet another legal action is filed against the Saguache County Assessor’s Office. Local residents represented by Goldman, Robbins and Nicholson, P.C. filed a Motion for Contempt Citation saying that the Assessor’s Office did not follow the Court’s order of March 17.  A hearing date has been set for June 3.

According to the Motion for Contempt Citation, “On March 17, 2014, the Court issued an Order: Amended Order Approving Joint Stipulation and Approving Dismissal With Prejudice. This Order provided the correct respective values and classification of Plaintiffs’ properties on Exhibit A to the Order. The Order further provided that ‘The Saguache County Assessor shall revise her records to reflect the new values and Folk property classification and shall issue new Tax Notices to Plaintiffs on or before April 1, 2014.’ Thus, the Assessor was ordered to adjust the values as if a petition to the Board of Equalization was granted or new values had been established in a trial de novo. The correct valuations and classifications were expressly set forth in Exhibit A to the Order. The Assessor was given clear direction as to both procedure and the correct property valuations.”

Plaintiffs in the case contend that the Assessor did not send out the new Tax Notices by the deadline of April 1, but instead they received Abatement Petitions on April 5, 2014 that were already filled out with numbers which were not the same as those ordered by the Court. On the notices, dated March 5, Plaintiffs were ordered to sign and return the Abatement Petitions. When Plaintiffs’ attorney questioned the use of an Abatement

Petition and the discrepancy in property values stated on the form, which differed from the values ordered by the Court, the County Treasurer’s office sent a different Abatement Petition dated April 9 with still different tax figures. Although a few properties were listed with the same numbers as the Court had ordered, most of the properties were off a few dollars. For example, one property for which the Court ordered an assessed value of $6,250 was valued instead at $6, 247.

Plaintiffs filed the original appeal because they felt the Assessed Value of their properties was too high, and did not reflect the true market values of properties in the Town of Crestone. Baca properties were assessed inconsistently, and in one case, a residential property was assessed as a business. In a Settlement Agreement, the Court agreed with Plaintiffs and set specific values for each of the properties, which were lower than the values set by the Assessor. The Assessor, Jackie Stephens, had set the values at the direction of the Department of Local Affairs, Division of Property Taxation, which assisted in the re-assessment process. The County Board of Equalization (Commissioners) had then heard appeals from the Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs did not agree with the County’s decision, and appealed to the Court through a trial de novo.

Elaine Johnson, one of the Plaintiffs, explained that the Abatement Petition forms that were sent to Plaintiffs contained a notice that specifies that an Abatement Petition cannot be filed by a taxpayer who has already gone to court to appeal the assessment values. Because the Abatement Petition was repeatedly, and erroneously, sent, and because the figures were not precisely what the Court ordered, Plaintiffs decided to file a Motion for Contempt of Court. Johnson, an attorney herself, said she strongly believes that citizens need to have confidence that when the Court makes an order that it will be followed precisely. Citizens “need clear rules, clear boundaries, and certainty.” “Why not use the numbers the Court gave? The Court ordered one number, and the Assessor used another number.”

Saguache County Commissioners, who also function as the County Board of Equalization, have issued the following statement regarding the Contempt of Court motion:

“As previously reported, a protest of property valuations resulting from the re-appraisal assessments last year was filed by a group of Crestone/Baca citizens—Steven P. McDowell, Elaine T. Johnson, MJ Investments, LLC, William Henry Folk, II and Julie E. Folk, Patricia Zinn, the Estate of Robert E. Sisemore (Deceased) and Eileen P. Sisemore, Lisa Cyriacks and Curtis English. Their protest was reviewed by the County Assessor, and subsequently appealed to the local Board of Equalizations. Not satisfied by the outcomes of those reviews and adjustments, they chose to further appeal in District Court. The hearings scheduled in early March never took place. Instead, the Appellants’ attorney proposed a settlement.

“The State Division of Property Taxation indicated acceptance of the proposed Settlement, with final adjustments resulting in total tax abatements of $8,957.55, across the 17 parcels involved in the appeal, of which the County portion is $1,832.17. The Saguache County Board of Equalizations and County Assessor were pleased with an ultimate solution agreeable to the Appellants and the State Division of Property Taxation, and the stipulated Settlement was completed, on March 17, 2014. The stipulation included requirements that the County Assessor would revise her records to reflect the new values (stipulated) and Folk property classification, and issue new Tax Notices accordingly, on or before April 1, 2014.

“On April 17, 2014, the Appellants in this Settlement filed a Motion for Contempt Citation. This Motion seeks to have the Court find that the Assessor did not comply with the Court’s Order in the following aspects:

1) The new tax notices were not provided to the Plaintiffs on or before April 1, 2014.

2) The Assessor’s Office used an Abatement process to internally change the property values, and the plaintiffs claim that this process was not appropriate.

3) The new tax notices do not accurately reflect the stipulated property values.

“The Assessor’s positions on these claims are:

1) The updated tax notices were not provided by April 1, due to the unavoidable absence of the Assessor from her office for an extended time period.

2) The Abatement process was used because the Settlement Agreement did not provide enough information for the Treasurer’s Office to process new Tax Notices.

3) The Abatement process was the only means available to the Assessor, to properly reflect the change in property taxes agreed upon in the Settlement.

4) The new Tax Notices reflect, within a few dollars, the stipulated values of the properties – any differences are due to the computer program utilized in determining the property taxes, reflecting a “rounding up” or “rounding down” function.

A hearing has been set for this Motion on June 3, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. in the Saguache District Court.”

Abatement process explained:

“As a separate but related matter, if a citizen feels there is an error in their property taxes they may file for an abatement. Abatement applications are filed to the County Assessor. The Assessor must respond to a filed abatement within 90 days. If not satisfied with the Assessor’s findings, citizens may appeal to the local Board of Equalization, which may uphold the Assessor’s recommendations, or approve an abatement. If still not satisfied, citizens may further appeal to the State Board of Assessment Appeals. For information or assistance regarding property taxes, please contact the County Assessor’s office at – 719 655-2521.”


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