Assigning values to borough properties is a year-long job for the Kenai Peninsula Borough assessor's office.
Property owners only see the tip of the iceberg when assessment notices arrive in the mail. Prior to that, a small team of appraisers works as detectives, trying to verify more than 60,000 parcels in the borough. They drive down roads and follow paths through thick underbrush. Sometimes boats or snowmachines are required. They follow up on phone calls and sometimes retrace their steps for accuracy.
In an area that is 24,737 square miles -- 16,147 of which are land - it isn't always easy to find what they are looking for, or even know where they are.
"This is a unique state and a unique borough," said Denis Mueller of the assessor's office, adding that new mapping systems, aerial views and GPS (global positioning system) units are making it "easier and easier to determine where we're at."
Occasionally, there are animals to contend with, domestic and otherwise. More often than not, property owners aren't home, leaving appraisers to do their best with the information they have.
"We do not look in windows or enter without the owner's permission," Mueller said. "The only time we can enter without permission is if (the structure is) under construction and open."
Sometimes only children are at home. And sometimes property owners state their desire to not have an appraiser in the area.
"In that case, we leave," Mueller said. "We don't want to put appraisers or the public in any compromising position."
With all the variables to consider, Randy Hughes, who has been with the assessor's office for two years, said safety is a major concern. He carries a box of supplies, including ice cleats and hand warmers. But even those precautions haven't prevented him from falling in mud and stepping on nails. And then there's the story about the structure he entered, only to meet a bear coming down the stairs.
"I came into this with lots of outdoor experience," Hughes said. "I think we all thrive on it. You never know what you'll get into."
Appraisers must condense standard variables into black and white, boiling down information into a series of boxes, check marks and numbers on a field appraisal sheet. On it, appraisers evaluate foundations, floor structures and coverings, construction of exterior walls, ceilings and roofs, materials used for interior walls, heating systems, insulation, electrical and plumbing. They determine the quality of workmanship, ranging from low to excellent.
Land attributes include access, trees and views. For structures still under construction, the appraisers estimate percent complete.
Whatever can't be captured on the worksheet, Hughes' records with a 35 mm camera he carries in his supply box -- including the mannequin hidden in the bushes that a property owner posed with an axe to discourage visitors.
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