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Cole County Commission, assessor spar over assessment figures

by Jeff Haldiman | December 5, 2021 at 3:05 a.m. | Updated December 5, 2021 at 11:35 a.m.

A contentious relationship between the Cole County Commission and the county assessor bubbled to the surface this week in heated exchanges during preliminary work on the 2022 budget.

Commissioners asserted the county's assessed values are too low, in part, because they believe Assessor Chris Estes' office has not changed the values of about 10,000 real estate parcels since 2007.

Estes responded the office is understaffed and saddled with a computer system the county selected that makes work take longer than it should.

The exchanges came out of budget hearings that were conducted this week between the commission, department heads and elected officials.

During his portion of the budget hearing, Estes told commissioners the state tax commission has recommended his office maintain a staffing level of 14 full-time personnel and four part-time positions for the last several years.

Currently, there are 12 full-time and one part-time employees working in the office.

Estes was asking the commission to allow him to add one full-time residential real estate appraiser and one commercial field reviewer to the 2022 budget. Estes said the field review work is currently done by a contract worker; he said it should be done by a person working in his office. The real estate appraiser salary would start at $34,000, and the field reviewer would start at $32,000.

"The recommendations from the state tax commission are based on the amount of work it takes to complete the work per parcel in a county," Estes said.

Commissioners questioned if adding staff would really address a critical need the commission identified in August: under-assessed properties.

In August, Western District Commissioner Harry Otto noted the value of real estate in Cole County, which is established by the assessor's office, had decreased from one year to the next, except for new construction.

There are around 36,000 parcels of real estate in Cole County, and of those, the assessor only notified 1,306 parcel owners that there would be an increase in their assessments for 2021, commissioners noted.

At the Board of Equalization meetings in July, only one resident property owner had objected to his valuation, and the BOE upheld the assessor's value.

"What drives the levy (which funds the county's operations) is the assessment amount, and that amount is questionable in my opinion," Otto said in August.

During the budget hearings last week, Estes reminded Otto the state tax commission has not found his office out of compliance.

Officials with the state tax commission told the News Tribune they had reviewed residential and commercial studies done by Estes' office from 2011-19, and they were in compliance during that time period.

Estes dismissed the commissioners' contentions and alleged the county's computer system purchase has made his staff's job tougher than needed.

"Thanks to the County Commission making my office change our real estate computer program, we had to spend the majority of our time correcting mistakes we found the program had made," Estes said. "Had we not had to do that, the assessment numbers could have been different.

"I also want to point out the fact that we conduct anywhere from 40 to 200 informal hearings, prior to BOE, every year," he said, "not to mention the office visits or has telephone conversations explaining why a value is what it is."

Eastern District Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher discounted Estes' complaints about the computer system. Hoelscher said he gets emailed reviews about the new system on a regular basis, and it seems to be working well.

"I want to make sure things are working good," Hoelscher said. "And if things need to be addressed, the company is doing so. It's not slowing things down, Chris. You all just don't want to change."

Estes retorted: "Some of those problems bring us to a dead stop."

Hoelscher laughed at the comment.

"Talk to any of my employees and get their opinion of that system," Estes said at the hearing.

On Friday, Estes told the News Tribune he was copying the commissioners on emails his office was sending about problems with the system.

At the budget hearing, Estes said the residential supervisor had reviewed some of the data and found 340 problems in one day. The company looks them over and sends them back, and the supervisor had to look at each one individually. This happens almost weekly, he said.

Otto suggested the issue with assessments runs much deeper than the computer system.

Several months ago, Otto said at the budget hearing, he had given Estes a schedule of assessments of two blocks on one particular street.

Otto said Estes never got back to him with answers to his questions.

"If a person is sitting in their house in 2021 and the assessment hasn't changed since 2007 (when Estes came into office), they're in a pretty stagnant neighborhood," Otto said.

Estes replied: "Or the house has not been kept up, and the condition of the house has deteriorated and that happens quite often."

Otto said he has found about 10,000 real estate parcels that have not changed in value since 2007.

Estes said he couldn't say if that number was correct. But he added, "If we had more people, we could speak to every one of those and what the reason was."

Otto asked Estes if he planned to send a notice about potential changes in 2023, which is a reassessment year, to county property owners in next year's tax bills.

Estes said they are looking at doing that.

"Does state statute require you to do that?" Otto asked.

"I don't believe so," Estes answered.

"So why do that for the first time since 2007?" Otto asked.

"So we inform taxpayers of what will be going on," Estes said. "We send out notices to let people know they can file online, and that saves a lot of work for us."

Otto suggested Estes has a history of avoiding reassessments.

"I asked you this summer why you didn't do a countywide reassessment for 2021, and you told me it was because (the commission) made you go from one software system to another," Otto said. "I asked you why you didn't do it 2019, and you said it was because of your surgeries.

"I asked you about why you didn't do it in earlier years like in 2009, and you said it was because the recession hit, and I bought that," Otto said.

Angrily, Estes responded: "Do you know anything about mass appraisal?"

Raising his voice, Otto said: "I don't know a damn thing about it."

Estes replied: "Then you should find out more before you make judgments. I've been in my office 14 years, and you've only been in yours for less than a year.

"You learn your job, and let me do my job," Estes said. "Stay out of my office, and we'll get along just fine."

Commissioners noted governmental entities in the county, such as school districts and villages, are suffering from the effects of low assessments.

The Jefferson City School District Board of Education approved a tax rate 7 cents less than last year's tax rate. School officials estimated the reduction will result in about $700,000 less revenue.

District officials said they found there was negative growth in the assessed value of current properties in the district as well as in the Russellville R-1 District.

At the budget hearing, Otto asked Estes if his staff had suggested in an email there could be reassessments if they were able to keep the computer system they liked.

Otto provided a copy of the email to the News Tribune.

The May 11, 2021, email from a residential appraiser supervisor said, "I thought about this at lunch and maybe a thing to get Mr. Hoffman off our backs (is) tell him if he can get us Clear Basin back (the system the assessor's office wants to keep) we could get him his 1.5 increase on the residential side because we would be able to do a reassessment on the parcels we've been reviewing which would be half of Cole County. Then he would get the other increase in 2023. Just a though(t). Maybe he can smooth talk the commissioners."

Estes replied, "That is a great idea!"

The Hoffman referred to is Jason Hoffman, the former chief financial officer of the Jefferson City School District.

On Friday, Estes defended the supervisor, saying the change in computer systems took people out of the field and adversely affected the staff's ability to do reassessments.

Other entities in the county are questioning assessments in their areas.

Adam Brown, a Centertown trustee, filed a Sunshine Law request with Estes' office recently. His request seeks a master list of properties where assessments went either up or down for the last five odd years, which were reassessment years.

"I did not do this as a member of the Centertown Board of Trustees; I did this as a taxpayer," Brown said.

"There are a lot of governmental entities that are at their maximum for tax levels," said Brown, who at one time did work in the assessor's office. "To see an increase in their budgets, the true assessed value of land is the only thing that could help without having to go back to voters and ask for an increase."

The contentious exchanges about the assessed value of properties at the budget hearing spilled over into a discussion about how the assessor's office is operated.

Otto asked Estes why one of his employees was reportedly doing work while on vacation and getting paid for it.

"When I took the job 14 years ago, I was told by the then presiding commissioner (Marc Ellinger) that they would not be paying overtime to the assessor's office," Estes said. "I don't know if we've ever had an overtime request approved."

Estes said they took other steps and used comp time.

"The reason we used comp time was because of the errors found in our computer system that needed to be fixed," Estes said. "The employee was doing that work at home or on vacation. If she hadn't done that work, we'd have been sitting dead in the water."

Estes said his understanding of the county employee handbook was that department heads, if they needed to make policy deviations for their departments, can do so.

"Independent of telling the commission what you're doing?" Otto asked Estes.

"Correct," Estes replied. "I don't work for the County Commission. I work for the taxpayers. The County Commission makes all sorts of rules, whether or not all those rules apply to the assessor's office, I don't know the legal decision there."

Estes said that nobody in his office had abused hours nor had they taken hours they hadn't actually worked.

"If that's the case, why aren't you reporting them," Auditor Kristen Berhorst asked Estes.

"Because we were told we would never get overtime," Estes responded.

"Then why did the time sheets show 'worked' when the person was actually three states away?" Otto asked. "Why doesn't it show comp time taken?"

Estes said: "Because that's all done in house; it's an individual thing we do in our office. It's not false to say they weren't working because they had their laptop with them."

Incensed, Otto said: "So when you see Mount Rushmore or Mexico in the background, they're working? They recorded eight hours of work every day for two weeks."

"That's correct," Estes said. "The comp time is not earned when they're on vacation. It's earned when they come in at 7 a.m. to work before we open or when they're working from home after we're closed."

Otto responded: "When the comp time is taken, it should say comp time rather than working hours when you're in another country. That's my point."

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