May 23, 2013 | Vol. 39, No. 21

Local residents question property assessment values

Petersburg Borough resident Lynn Escola and her husband Paul Johnson questioned the assessment of their property over the past five years during the Petersburg Borough Assembly regular meeting Monday evening.

“I am here to question the accuracy of property assessments and the records that the Borough maintains,” Escola stated. “There seems to be a lack of accountability on the part of the Borough for these records and property assessment values.”

Escola and her husband own property at 7 mile Mitkof Highway, which are actually two pieces of property adjoining each other and are referred to as one property.

“We had our property appraised in December,” Escola said. “The appraiser from Canary and Associates contacted us and told us the land size and property appraisal has been recorded inaccurately.”

According to Escola, the appraiser informed her that her property assessment had been recorded too high over the last five years.

“In December, the appraiser had made the adjustment to our property size from 1.5 acres to 1.1 acres,” Escola explained. “The total appraised value of our property was $60,000 less than the amount of the City assessment.”

Escola also explained that the City had been overtaxing them on their property for years.

During a fact finding mission by Escola, she found out that the Borough does not keep any records on how the property values are calculated.

“The borough merely purchases the property values from the assessor,” Escola stated. “Only the assessor knows how the calculations are applied to property values and these records are the property of the assessor, not the borough and are not made public by the borough.”

In March, Escola asked the borough to correct the land size for the upcoming 2013 assessment and to make it retroactive for the years 2008 to 2012 and refund the overpayment which totaled just short of $3,000.

“We discovered that the borough only keeps property cards as records of property in the borough,” Escola stated. “Land square footage is noted on the cards but isn't necessarily used for the assessments.”

According to Escola, the inaccuracy had not been noted on their 2013 property assessment and they were still billed for the same amount as 2012.

“We appealed this assessment,” Escola stated. “We also asked for all records regarding how the assessment had been calculated. We wanted to see all of the work in writing.”

After six weeks, an assessor did record the inaccuracies and changed the assessment.

“We were still unable to get records from the assessor regarding the previous assessments,” Escola noted. “We were able to see records on our land size from the finance department and that was what I would consider “wacky world” with one of our lots being shown as double its size and the other being shown as more than half.”

According to Escola there were five different sets of figures regarding their property and each of these figures were different.

“Wrong numbers in a finance office is very dangerous,” Escola stated. “I think it is time to clean house. It is ludicrous that there are several different sets of figures for one piece of property. These figures should be reconciled for all departments.”

Escola questioned the use of pencil in making notations on property cards.

“It is not good that this important information is kept in pencil. Pencil is used for fleeting unimportant notations,” Escola stated. “Pencil is also used when you want to tamper with records.”

She stated to the Assembly that they should require thorough written backup to how figures are gleamed by the assessors.

State statute requires the borough to determine a property's full and true value.

“The borough may be following the letter of the law,” Escola stated. “What you are doing cannot be considered good government.”

Escola discovered that the overpayment of property taxes for the years 2008 to 2011 cannot be refunded due to the time interval and lack of appeal.

“The use of pencil for official records is unacceptable,” Escola stated. “Make sure your records are correct and stop using pencil.”

The assessor for the State of Alaska, Steve Van Sant, explained that the use of pencil is typical for most assessor's offices.

“Appraisers do make mistakes and it makes it easier to erase a mistake than it is to cross out an ink entry,” Van Sant reported. “After a while all the ink entries would make a virtual mess of the cards due to mistakes so a pencil and eraser has primarily been used throughout, not only Alaska, but most assessors' offices across the country.”

Van Sant also explained that the field cards will be done away with due to the assessors going paperless with the advent of computer tablets.

Petersburg Borough assessor Mike Winfro stated that he would have a written response to all of Escola's concerns by July 8.

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