Although the number of appeals from property owners are fewer this year, the issues and the preparation time are equally important.
Wednesday is the first of three days scheduled for hearings of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Board of Equalization. The remaining cases will be heard June 18 and 19.
Borough assessor Shane Horan said the BOE's agenda for Wednesday includes appeals from property owners in Cooper Landing, Seward, Nikiski, Soldotna, Kenai, the Mackey Lake area and Poacher's Cove subdivision, which includes approximately 120 lots. Another 10 appeals are scheduled for the hearings later this month.
"That compares to 45 that were held last year," Horan said. "This isn't too bad of a year, probably because of the areas we looked at -- Nanwalek, Seldovia, South Kachemak Bay, Ninilchik, Anchor Point commercial properties and part of Ridgeway. So, it wasn't too bad."
Last year, Horan and his team of appraisers focused on reevaluating the Cooper Landing and Seward areas, which resulted in a "drastic increase to bring them up to market," Horan said. "The areas we covered this year didn't have those increases."
Horan said the assessing department "attempted our best to work the values, look at the properties and get an interior inspection." He said getting a look at the inside of a property "tells the tale."
The BOE is comprised of the nine members of the borough assembly. Elected to the assembly in October, Ron Long of Seward is doing his homework to prepare for Wednesday's hearings.
"I haven't really gone through this before so I'm going to be like Ross Perot -- all ears," said Long, who added he has been busy reading and going through "pounds" of homework.
Without going into details on individual cases, he said, "There's some dramatic changes all over."
"This is the flip side of 10 years ago when property values were down and the mill rate went up to make up for the loss of value."
This will be assembly member Pete Sprague's third year sitting on the board.
"The more you do, the more you understand. But the time commitment is very large," he said. "We've got three full days scheduled for BOE hearings, as well as many hours of preparation for the hearings themselves. It's one of our responsibilities sitting on the assembly, but it's a difficult one."
"The assembly does wear another hat as the BOE," said Assembly President Tim Navarre. "It sits as a judicial body to hear the citizens' appeals of their tax assessments."
Prior to Wednesday, Navarre said the BOE would review information from the assessing department on how values were determined for the properties in question, as well as the appellants' documents backing up their appeals. On Wednesday, each side has the opportunity to make oral arguments.
"Each case normally takes approximately a half-hour and in some cases as much as an hour," said Navarre, who has been involved in the BOE process for eight years. "In some of the bigger cases that we've had, it's gone on for days for specific cases.
"In most cases, the decision is rendered immediately after the rebuttal and the board debates it. In some cases, we've deferred the decision, but would have to make a motion to defer the decision to a time later."
Navarre the board also has been known to go into executive session to discuss cases having the potential for a lawsuit.
"That's to protect the borough and the residents of the borough to not add to the record comments or debates that could be misunderstood or taken out of context and then in court be part of the record," Navarre said. "It's to protect everybody. But normally, that's only reserved for the larger, complicated cases."
One such case scheduled for Wednesday could be headed for court, according to property owner Teresa Werner-Quade. She and her husband, Paul, are appealing the assessed value of a chalet-type rental home they are building in Kenai. Describing it as a "story and a half," Werner-Quade said the lower level has approximately 800 square feet, but the top floor is less -- an estimated 512 feet -- due to the steep slope of the roof.
"What they did was charge us the same amount of square footage on the lower floor as the upper floor," she said.
According to her and her husband' s calculations, the difference could mean as much as $20,000 in assessed value. She said there were other discrepancies, too.
"They said we had a concrete block foundation, but we don't have that. They said we have baseboard heat, but we don't have that. They said we have carpet and flooring, but that isn't there."
"My husband has tried to correct this thing from the very start," Werner-Quade said. "He was on this the very day he got his tax notice in the mail. He's had trouble before, but (the borough) always made it right. It never went to an appeal. But on this thing, it's flagrantly wrong and they're forcing us to go to an appeal, forcing us to submit these documents and go before the assembly to do this. It's just really hard because they're the ones who have made this mistake, but they're tying up our time and our resources."
Poacher's Cove Subdivision, which is owned by Dave Keating and is on the BOE's Wednesday agenda, also is on the borough assembly's agenda for Tuesday. An ordinance, introduced by Borough Mayor Dale Bagley, seeks to exclude parcels of the subdivision from a borough code requirement for a 50-foot habitat protection area on anadromous streams.
"This subdivision was created for recreational purposes," wrote Bagley in the memo accompanying the ordinance. "The lots are very small and only large enough to accommodate minimal improvements. Considering the relatively small portion of the river affected by this subdivision and the significant ongoing administrative time and effort it requires, the assembly is respectfully requested to exclude Poacher's Cove Subdivision from the habitat protection area."
"I wasn't aware that we had any action at assembly level," Navarre said. "I would have to look into that."
He also said he would probably keep the assembly from getting into the merits of the ordinance on Tuesday, waiting, instead, for the BOE's decision Wednesday.
"Regarding Ordinance 2001-20, I have some concerns about waiving the 50-foot buffer for anywhere along the river," Sprague said. "I worry about the precedent it might set. The 50-foot buffer is very important in preserving the health of the Kenai River."
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