Jackson County: Is Anyone Listening?


By Joe Sweeney


More than a month later, I’m still steamed. But hey: I’m not alone. At last count, nearly 22,000 other Jackson County property owners had filed appeals of their 2019 property appraisals, which in many cases doubled, tripled or quadrupled from last year’s levels.

Jackson County has some ’splainin’ to do.

Ingram’s devoted some editorial staff time to looking into the Great Reappraisal Mess of 2019, picking the brains of specialists in real-estate lawyers for some insight into what’s going on at the County Courthouse.

Their verdict: Nothing that breaks a law, nothing that appears to be grounds for a lawsuit from those of us assessing the costs of tar and feathers in this market. At least, not yet, anyway.

Instead, they tell us what we have on our hands is a crisis on multiple levels:

  • For one, we don’t know how out-of-whack the appraisals are this year, or how many might accurately reflect a property’s true valuation.
  • For another, we have a county administration that seems oblivious to the scale and scope of the citizen outcry going up, with zero crisis-management tools or public-relations sensibilities.
  • And for dozens of taxing units in the county, who routinely sign off of their coming fiscal year’s budget plans in August, we have the prospect of a county being unable to inform them of the true assessment level of their taxing jurisdiction, making it impossible to set levies that meet spending needs without generating enormous increases in revenues.

Worse, the county has been compelled to extend the deadline for filing appeals until Sept. 3. So thousands of additional claims may yet come in, further swamping the board of equalization that will have to sign off on owners’ complaints, or reject them.

The harsh reality that no one at the courthouse has addressed is this: The volume is too great. There isn’t enough manpower to manage that appeals process. And the state—the next level of further appeals—isn’t prepared to, either.

Most disappointing about this is that the county has failed to own the problem it created. Among the questions that should have been answered from the day the first complaint was filed:

1.  Who conducted the appraisals, and under what terms?

2. How many of those were conducted by Jackson County personnel, and how many by outside vendors?

3. Do the rates of increase reported by the third-party vendors show any statistically significant variation from those produced by county personnel?

4. Did county staff make a visual inspection of every property? If not, when the sky-high figures started coming in, did the county issue a directive to ensure actual inspection of properties where valuations were coming in at more than 50 percent higher? 100 percent? 200?

5. In the absence of on-site property reviews, what criteria were used to determine valuations?

6. Did the third-party appraisers conducting this work for the county have any financial incentives tied to producing higher overall valuations (creating a potential conflict of interest)?

7. Did the county, at any point up to and including today, explore the possibility of freezing assessment levels for a year until the valuation mess could be straightened out?

8. Is the Jackson County Legislature prepared to address assessment practices to cap potential increases from one year to the next?

9. Has anyone at the courthouse proposed a program to phase in increases for those hardest-hit by higher valuations? If so, at what rates; if not, why not?

10. What, if anything, has Jackson County done to mitigate the impact on other taxing jurisdictions?
      

This is one that any competent executive or crisis-manager should have been able to deal with the moment the problem reared its head. The lawyers we talk to say the inability to do so isn’t necessarily on its face illegal—it’s just bad management. 

They also say some heads should roll over this, starting with the appraiser’s office leadership and going right up to the county executive.

Bad government is bad in its own right, but the effects of it roll far downhill from the County Courthouse. What business owner in his right mind is inclined to open his doors here, or keep them open? What prospective homeowner—already harboring doubts about some of the public school districts, or sweating out the cost of private schooling—isn’t going to look at housing across county or state lines?

Repeated extensions of the appeals process don’t begin to address the wrongs inflicted on the citizens of Jackson County. Time for some real action. And at every level.

The only problem is: Is anyone really listening? 

About the author

joesweeneysig

Joe Sweeney

Editor-In-Chief & Publisher

JSweeney@Ingrams.com

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