Panel backs single assessor system for St. Louis CountySt. Louis County should move to a single system of county assessors to more fairly determine property values and reduce the current mix of private, municipal and county assessors now doing the work.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
St. Louis County should move to a single system of county assessors to more fairly determine property values and reduce the current mix of private, municipal and county assessors now doing the work.
That’s the majority recommendation of a 14-member panel on assessment practices, which the County Board formed last May to study the problem.
The panel finished its work Wednesday in Duluth after meeting a dozen times over the past nine months as state, local and county officials painted a confusing picture of current assessment practices, including a potpourri of assessment systems that sometimes follow different guidelines.
Some cities and townships contract with private assessors to do the work. Other cities and towns — including Duluth, Hibbing and Virginia — have their own city employee assessors. And some cities and towns contract for county assessors to do the work.
The result has been that many properties across the county are being under-valued or over-valued while, in the most egregious cases, some aren’t being assessed at all. That has left some people paying too much in property taxes while others pay far too little. And some property is being missed altogether, potentially keeping millions of dollars out of the system and increasing taxes for everyone else.
Nine members of the panel favored a single, county-run system of assessors while four backed the current mix of assessors with minor changes. One remained uncommitted. All members approved the report, however, that will include a minority opinion against a single system.
“This isn’t an indictment of the current assessors out there. But the current system is clearly flawed,’’ said Duluth businessman John Heino, a member of the panel. “A true county system puts the authority and the responsibility in the same place. … It’s inherently a better system.”
Steve Abrahamson, a real estate agent and mayor of Tower, agreed.
“We’re trying to make it fair and equitable to all people,’’ he said. “I feel the county system is the way to go.”
Supporters said they envision a deliberate process over several years to phase out local assessors. In the meantime they called for improved communications between agencies and more sharing of technology and training.
The panel’s report, more than 50 pages, now goes to the County Board for consideration. Mark Monacelli, county director of public records and property valuation, said he hopes the board addresses the topic at an upcoming board workshop in March or April. He said he’d like the board to consider formal action on the recommendations soon thereafter.
The panel said county commissioners will be pressed by some local officials to keep the status quo.
“I don’t know if, politically, you can get them to make the changes even if they see that the existing system is flawed,’’ said John Vigen, a private real estate appraiser in Duluth and co-chairman of the panel.
The issue also may require action by the city of Duluth and state Legislature. Duluth currently has its own system of assessors, and many members of the panel said a countywide system won’t work as well without the county’s largest city as part of it.
The panel was told that Duluth city assessments aren’t being done in a timely manner under state rules, and an increasing number of property owners in the city are challenging their values when their parcels are revalued. Moreover, city property owners are being hit twice, paying into the county tax to help maintain the county assessment office as well as paying for the city system.
“If the goal is to make it timely, uniform and fair for everyone in the county — and we’ve said that’s the goal — then I think it’s essential for Duluth to be in,’’ said Dawn Cole, a real estate appraiser based in Eveleth.
Trying to bring the city under a county system will be a political hot potato, panel members agreed, but needs to be tried. Duluth, as an official city of the first class, is the only municipality that would have a choice not to participate in a county assessment system.
County officials say they can do a better job if all assessors are under one umbrella, with the county better able to afford the latest technology to better find and calculate the fair value of properties from Kabetogama to Proctor.
County officials also say they can do the job more cheaply if they do it all. If all local municipalities come under the county umbrella, the county estimates it can do all appraisals for about $22.28 per parcel. That’s cheaper than the current $23.15 average among current county-assessed parcels; $26.40 average among locally assessed parcels; and $30.44 per parcel in Duluth.
Opponents of a single assessment system doubted the savings would be that great. And they said local townships won’t like losing local control over who conducts the assessments. Opponents, including Hibbing and Virginia’s assessors and private assessors on the panel — also noted they may be out of a job if the county takes over and they aren’t hired as county employees.
“I don’t think we’ve addressed the true costs of going to a county system. I think (county employees) are going to cost more over the long haul,’’ said Rick Puhek, Virginia city assessor. “You aren’t going to solve all the problems you have by going to county employees doing the work. They are still people. They’re going to make mistakes.”
Other opponents noted that many of the most glaring assessment mistakes in St. Louis County were made by a single local assessor who is no longer on the job.