Our view: Hold leaders responsible for failed assessmentsA News Tribune investigation last weekend found that properties in St. Louis County worth tens of millions of dollars either weren’t added to the tax rolls when they should have been or were improperly assessed — resulting in the rest of us paying far more than we should have in property taxes.
A News Tribune investigation last weekend found that properties in St. Louis County worth tens of millions of dollars either weren’t added to the tax rolls when they should have been or were improperly assessed — resulting in the rest of us paying far more than we should have in property taxes.
Of all the good and legitimate reasons for taxpayer outrage, this stood out: A former county official actually flagged problems as long as eight years ago, but pleas to investigate went “largely ignored by the St. Louis County Board and the State Department of Revenue, allowing the assessment errors to continue,” as News Tribune Investigations Editor Brandon Stahl wrote for a story Sunday, the first of two days of coverage.
The elected county commissioner whose district includes many of the improperly assessed and un-assessed buildings and other properties, Mike Forsman of Ely, offered, feebly, in the Sunday story: “I was of the belief that the assessor’s office was taking action to correct these things, and taking action to correct these deficiencies as soon as they were made aware of them.”
Forsman said he first remembers being told about the problems sometime in 2005. But they were still ongoing into late last year, the newspaper found. So just what did Forsman — and others from the state and county, both elected or otherwise considered responsible — do to follow up, to make sure the inadequate work, systemic problems and other issues were being dealt with?
Clearly, not enough.
Where Forsman’s constituents — and all county residents — should have been able to count on follow-through, they got failure.
Failure to the point that appraisals and inspections apparently were being done of properties that didn’t even exist.
And failure to the point that hundreds of St. Louis County properties — homes, garages, barns, cabins, campers and businesses — went for years either off the tax rolls or significantly undervalued, leaving other county property owners making up the difference by paying more in taxes than they should have, possibly hundreds or thousands of dollars more.
The state Department of Revenue is investigating, as well it should be. But the state can take some responsibility, too, for a property-assessment system that relies largely on private assessors hired by small municipalities as independent contractors but who aren’t required to have the training of a county assessor. Also, while counties are responsible for how assessments are done, county officials have limited oversight and aren’t given disciplinary authority. Only the state Department of Revenue can discipline the private assessors, but it does so rarely, if ever.
“The county also can’t tell towns and townships whom they should hire to assess properties, so the townships often go with the lowest bidder, even if county audits show that assessor has incorrectly assessed other properties for years,” Stahl wrote, explaining yet another problem.
As public records and property evaluation director, Mark Monacelli oversees the assessment process for St. Louis County. “There is no excuse for this,” he said in Sunday’s report. “It’s disturbing.”
It’s disturbing enough for ripped-off, outraged property taxpayers to stand up and take notice, and to demand that state and county leaders and others take action to fix a system that clearly is broken.
And it’s disturbing enough for voters to hold their elected representatives responsible in the next election. That includes Forsman and others on the County Board who were told years ago about the problem but who didn’t take the steps necessary to address it.