County brings property tax assessments together

Published 9:57 am Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Mower County is bringing all of its property tax assessments under one roof in an effort to be fair and equitable.

The Mower County board voted unanimously Tuesday to switch to a “true county assessor” system starting in Jan. 2, 2018.

The move means all property assessments for tax valuations will be completed by Mower County Assessor Joy Kanne’s office, which county officials say will make for a fair and equitable tax system after errors and differences in some townships.

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“The bottom line of the whole thing is we want equity across the whole county and we’ve had some problems in the past where that hasn’t happened, and we want to make sure it’s fair for everyone across the board,” Board Chair Polly Glynn said.

The move largely stems from concerns over a lack of qualified rural assessors as some are retiring and the state will start requiring assessors to earn more certifications, which county officials say will be costly and likely limit the number of people completing rural assessments.

“In the end, the problem is that the assessors just aren’t going to be there because they aren’t going to get certification, so we really have no choice,” Commissioner Tony Bennett said.

Currently, the county contracts to complete assessments for the city of Austin and several townships, while a few other townships have their own assessors.

Staff is in place in neighboring counties like Freeborn and Olmsted.

But that doesn’t mean it was a simple decision or that it received universal support. The board has discussed it with townships for several months, bringing out a variety of opinions.

In fact, Glynn apologized to township leaders after the county was unable to estimate numbers to show what the change would mean per acre with the change to the true county system.

In early meetings, county officials spoke of some estimates and said they’d get more specific numbers. But Glynn said they weren’t able to iron down accurate numbers because of the many townships involved and complicated nature of the assessment process.

“We were not able to do that, and on that account I think we failed to deliver what we said we would deliver at that time,” Glynn said. “I feel bad about that.”

Commissioner Tim Gabrielson agreed, but he assured the residents it was because the numbers were complex and the county didn’t want to give a false statement or guess of the numbers.

“Instead of trying to snowball through it, we’ll be honest — it’s just too complicated the way it is now and true county is the way that is going to make the system better,” Gabrielson said.

Township leaders expressed mixed feelings over the change. James Williams, who is challenging Gabrielson for his District 1 seat, said that while he understood the needs behind the change, but he argued the burden for the program would fall on rural residents while giving city residents a break.

He called for all cities to contract with the county instead, which he said would be a more equitable solution.

However, county staff noted the county hasn’t increased the contract costs for handle township assessments since it started completing them in the 1960s. If the county were to begin charging enough to cover the county’s costs, it would need to increase fees by about 40 percent.

Under the true county system, the assessment costs woulds simply come off the county levy.

Paul Hamlin noted that LeRoy Township voted against true county, arguing they want to maintain local control

“You want local control,” he said. “To me in this, we’re going to lost local control.”

However, Reinartz and Kanne noted the townships can still have a board of review to go over and make rulings when residents challenge their property values.

“The local board of appeal and equalizations is a meeting that you as a board, you take the time to attend the training and your certified, and that is how your township, your jurisdiction takes control of the assessment,” she said. “Not one decision is made about an assessment that your board doesn’t have a say in when you have a board of equalization.”

However, Kanne noted several township boards don’t choose to have board of equalization meetings, though she commended Hamlin and LeRoy Township for handling the meetings.

Kanne said the true county system is not the county against the townships boards, it’s just the opposite.

“We work for all of you,” she said. “The numbers we put on are number that we feel are fair and equitable, but you do have the final say in that in your local board meeting. As long as you keep that board meeting, you will always have the say in what that value is.”

“We’re there to give you our best professional opinion, but the decision rests with you,” she added.

While Hamlin also argued Mower was rushing into true county, county officials noted most other neighboring counties already are on the true county model and Mower has discussed this for the last few years.

Commissioner Mike Ankeny argued true county will help make the valuations equal once all the assessments are made out of one office.

“I think it simplifies it,” Ankeny said.

Kanne noted the assessor’s goal is simply to ensure property owners pay their fare shares.

“All taxpayers benefit when the system is equal,” she said.

She said overseeing the assessments is a huge job, but they need to ensure the assessments are completed the same way no matter what part of the county they’re in.

Dave Weness of Clayton Township voiced support for true county from his board, noting it’s something that will happen eventually if not now.

“I don’t see why we should be fighting progress,” he said.