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Our View: Follow through, fix downtown assessments

How out of whack were recent property-value assessments in downtown Duluth? Even St. Louis County, which did the assessments, acknowledged, "Our calculations were off due to a variety of factors, resulting in unfair (and) artificially high estima...

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Cameron Cardow/Cagle Cartoons

How out of whack were recent property-value assessments in downtown Duluth?

Even St. Louis County, which did the assessments, acknowledged, "Our calculations were off due to a variety of factors, resulting in unfair (and) artificially high estimated market values for many properties," as county Administrator Kevin Gray said in response to the News Tribune Editorial Board this week. "(We) have already reached out to (affected property owners and their advocates) to let them know we (are) working to correct valuations."

Corrections clearly are needed and can be welcomed. As the News Tribune reported exclusively Sunday, assessed values skyrocketed downtown - far beyond market values.

The Board of Trade Building, for example, sold last year for $850,000, but its value, as assessed by the county, was determined to be $2.9 million.

"And it hasn't had any major reinvestment," F.I. Salter Real Estate Services' Sandy Hoff, whose phone was "ringing off the hook" over the astronomical numbers in assessment notices, told a News Tribune reporter.

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Speaking of the News Tribune, the newspaper building across First Street from City Hall is another example of a newly assessed value not in line with market value. The county determined the newspaper building's assessed value at nearly $3.9 million. That's even though the building has been for sale for months at $2.9 million.

It isn't clear what happened, resulting in the out-of-line reassessments. Gray didn't immediately return a phone call from the News Tribune Opinion page this week to respond to follow-up questions. But it is clear - to him, too, according to his initial note to the editorial board - that corrections to the assessing process need to be made to prevent future sticker shock.

The county's "commitment to making this right," as Gray stated it, can be cheered.

And we can help. To fix mistakes already made, Gray urges peeved property owners to send letters to their city or township clerk and their local appeal board "to preserve their adjustment rights."

The erroneous valuations came at a particularly bad time for downtown Duluth. A three-year reconstruction of Superior Street, downtown's main drag, just launched. An abundance of offices and other properties are sitting empty throughout the city's center. Utilities and taxes are on the rise already. And a burdensome-to-businesses workplace mandate is being considered by the City Council.

In addition, "a lot of properties haven't been visited for a five- to eight-year span," as St. Louis County Public Records and Property Valuation Director Mary Garness said in Sunday's story. Years of valuation increases all at once as a result can be shocking, and such increases aren't assessed incrementally.

News of the reassessments was as disappointing as the county's response was encouraging. Gray promised "swift corrective actions (and) internal review measures to prevent (this) in the future."

"We are committed to addressing the problems (and) making corrections where necessary," he said. "The downtown business community has been going through a lot of late. Know (that St. Louis County) is not trying to add to that burden but rather working to remedy improperly calculated property values - while meeting a goal of fair and consistent valuations for all properties in (the county)."

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Property owners - and all taxpayers - can expect to be treated fairly. It isn't too much to ask of our government.

Help with assessments

Questions about property valuations may be directed to the St. Louis County Assessor's Office at (218) 726-2304.

Duluthians who still take issue with their proposed property valuations can bring concerns to a hearing May 16 (or to a later hearing if May 16's slots fill). Sign up for a slot by 4 p.m. that day.

Appeals also can be made in writing to the Duluth City Treasurer's Office, 411 W. First St., Room 105, Duluth, MN 55802.

If a local appeal fails to resolve the matter, residents can make cases directly to the county between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. June 19. Call (218) 726-2385 to make an appointment.

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