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PROTESTS, SOARING VALUES PROVE ASSESSOR JOB IS INDEED TAXING

SHARE PROTESTS, SOARING VALUES PROVE ASSESSOR JOB IS INDEED TAXING

Pity whoever wins the race for Salt Lake County assessor this year.

The four candidates who have signed up might as well aspire to be mayor of Sarajevo or coach of the Dallas Mavericks or Beta VCR sales people.That's because a booming real estate market has created a real dilemma for tax assessors. If they do the job the way it is designed, they run a good risk of fomenting mass rebellion. If they don't do the job the way it is designed, they run the same risk.

State law requires counties to reappraise the value of all property every five years. The current Salt Lake County assessor, Bob Yates, has divided Salt Lake County into five sections. Each year, his crew reappraises one-fifth of the county.

The system worked fine as long as property values remained constant or rose no higher than the general inflation rate. But when the boom hit last year, the crew happened to be re-evaluating property in the unincorporated Holladay-Cottonwood areas - looking at homes that tend to appreciate faster than normal anyway. As a result, most of those people saw their taxable values rise by more than 30 percent - and most of them ended up with tax bills that were dramatically higher than the year before.

State law was supposed to even things out. Local governments aren't allowed to reap windfalls. So when values rise, the tax rate is lowered to the point where the government gets the same money it did the year before. But the dramatic rise in the values of one-fifth of the county didn't create enough of an impact to affect rates much.

As a result, a mini-rebellion broke out in Cottonwood. An incorporation drive was started and people protested loudly.

Angry mass protests aren't the kinds of things politicians like to face, especially in an election year. They also are bad for digestion, nerves and a host of other physical and emotional ailments. Even though Yates has decided to withdraw his name from the ballot this year, he smelled even more trouble when his crew finished re-assessing Sandy, Draper and Midvale and found that values had risen by 80 percent.

As a result, Yates decided he wouldn't pass those numbers on to the state Tax Commission. The best way to handle the problem was to park it in the garage and let the next owner worry about it. In the meantime, he's working on a statistical program that will let assessors update values countywide each year.

"It's a question of equity," he was quoted as saying at the time.

You can't really blame him. However, this is a problem that can't be tucked away so easily. Yates might as well have tried to hide a smoldering house fire under a pile of newspapers.

The only people who seem to be happy about his decision are those who live in Sandy, Draper and Midvale. The people in Holladay-Cottonwood are left wondering why they are the only one who have had to suffer for rising property values.

They are doing more than just wonder. State Sen. Delpha Baird, R-Holladay, said the community may sue to roll back assessments in the area.

Yates also has some members of his own Republican Party grumbling. His decision not to report higher values in traditionally Republican areas was an inadvertent gift to Randy Horiuchi and Jim Bradley, two Democratic county commissioners seeking re-election this year. The howls from Sandy, Draper and Midvale surely would have hurt all incumbents - especially Democratic ones. People tend to blame county commissioners for their property tax problems anyway.

In the end, the state Tax Commission may step in and force the county to include this year's appraisals. Spokeswoman Janice Perry said the commission is discussing the matter, has "expressed concern about what it had seen in the papers" and has asked the county for more information.

The county also is likely to pressure state lawmakers to do something next year to change the tax structure.

Regardless, the job of Salt Lake County assessor doesn't seem the type of thing to aspire to right now.