Missouri lawmakers got a chance Monday to question the decisions of Jackson County Director of Assessment Gail McCann Beatty.
They arrived at a hearing in Missouri House of Representatives armed with questions about McCann Beatty's office and how it came to be in the center of a controversy.
Shortly after Beatty took office, her staff sent out assessments to thousands of property owners — there are about 300,000 parcels in the county — notifying them of (sometimes huge) increases to their property valuations.
Some property owners received notifications their assessments had increased tenfold or more. And, as the assessments went out, appeals flooded in — about 30,000.
The sudden surge in valuations was among circumstances that caused state Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, speaker of the House, in July to announce the creation of a Special Interim Committee on Oversight of Local Taxation.
"We've been covering a variety of subjects under the umbrella of local taxation," said state Rep. J. Eggleston, R-Maysville, the committee chairman. "So it's been sales tax-related, internet tax, some of the smaller taxing districts."
Monday's discussion would be focused on property taxes, he announced.
The committee has met in Kansas City, St. Louis and Jefferson City. On Monday, it met for the second time in the Capital City.
"I don't think it's any secret that the reassessment process in Jackson County has been incredibly challenging," said McCann Beatty, a former representative.
Traditionally, Jackson County properties have been undervalued, she continued. That information is available from tax representatives, real estate agents and others. And, past administrations caved to complaints about tax increases.
She explained that when she came to the job, her goal was to do what is required of the position, and assess all properties at market value.
When she took office, staff assessed a man's property at $90,000. He had bought the property in 2012 for $92,000. In 2013, about 50,000 properties in the counties were devalued. His was reduced to $38,000, she said.
"When I raised it this year to $90,000, you can imagine the shock that he had," McCann Beatty told the committee. "These are some of the things we are dealing with in Jackson County."
The only way to reach true equity in the process is to assure everyone is at market value, she argued.
Eggleston asked her where the appeals hearing process in her county stands. McCann Beatty said she wasn't sure.
"It's fair to say a large number, a five-figure number, will not be completed before tax bills actually go out to folks?" Eggleston asked.
"It is unlikely they will be completed by the time the tax bills go out," she replied. "The Board (of Equalization) is hopeful they can have them completed in December."
The board considers appeals to properties' market value assessments.
Once the appeals are completed, collection staff have to recalculate bills.
Her office, McCann Beatty said, is hamstrung by a small staff and budget. She said her office has only one commercial appraiser to consider about 30,000 properties. It has about nine residential appraisers responsible for 270,000 properties.
She said all properties receive on-site inspections every six to 10 years.
"All properties are visited because at some time someone has to go out and do measurements and all that," she said.
Do characteristics match records? Much of that is done each assessment cycle.
"Site visits are done. We did not necessarily do site visits for all of the increases," McCann Beatty said. "We did use the technology for some of those properties. Some got site visits. I don't want to say that none of them did."
Eggleston asked if she knew what percentage of parcels got increases of more than 15 percent.
She thought the number was about 30 percent, but the report her office does for the county does not include new construction, permits or renovations.
"The grid that I had seen was a little over half," he responded. Eggleston pulled an internal email from one of McCann Beatty's staff members, which included data that showed 53.5 percent of residential parcels increased by more than 15 percent.
Eggleston asked what might happen if the state created a law that prevented property values from being hiked more than 10 or 15 percent in any given year.
McCann Beatty argued that would require all the properties to begin at an even baseline.
She reiterated that reaching market value for all the properties in the county is the only way to assure everybody pays their fair shares of property taxes.
State Rep. Robert Sauls, D-Independence, said the Jackson County assessment process has been deeply flawed.
"I would not argue that point in the least," McCann Beatty said.
When a county has a good Board of Equalization, the appeals process works well, she said.
"When you don't, it doesn't," she continued. "We have had some situations where the board has been making decisions without any consideration for market value."