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Gavito is vexed by valuation

Dennis Webb

One of five people to protest property tax valuations this year is questioning the manner in which his appeal was handled by Garfield County.

Joe Gavito, who lives outside New Castle, says Garfield County didn’t provide adequate opportunity for him to appear in person to appeal the county’s valuation, which determines how much he pays in taxes.

He also questions the appropriateness of county commissioners, acting in this case as the county Board of Equalization, hearing that appeal. The county, as a recipient of property tax revenues, stands to gain or lose from their decision, he noted.

“It seems like it should be a lot more impartial,” said Gavito.

But County Assessor Shannon Hurst and County Commissioner John Martin believe the appeals system works well, as evidenced by occasions when commissioners overturn valuations by Hurst’s office.

“We have overturned several times. I think it is a fair and impartial hearing,” said Martin.

Gavito raised his questions in a letter to the Post Independent, in which he also accused the assessor’s office of employing dubious tactics. (See Letters to the Editor section.)

He wrote that “the assessor is out of control morally, legally, and in actuality in her assessments.

“She, somehow, can send her employees to your property to snoop around, peer in your windows, measure your fixtures, etc., without your consent.”

Hurst challenged that assertion. She said one of her employees knocked on the door and was shown around the house by a member of the family, who Gavito later said was himself.

He said the assessor never came into the home, but walked around outside, measuring decks and looking into windows.

Gavito took issue with the unannounced nature of the inspection, but Hurst said that with a small staff and more than 25,000 parcels to inspect, her office can’t call homeowners for appointments. The only time inspections occur by appointments is when a property owner requests it.

“We just can’t do that with all of them because we couldn’t get all our field work done,” she said.

All county properties automatically undergo a reassessment every two years, although many don’t undergo physical inspection. Although this is an off year, the assessor’s office remains busy checking on new properties or those that have undergone additions and remodeling, indicated by a building permit being obtained.

In Gavito’s case, Hurst said, an assessor visited the property because a three-car garage had been added.

The visit also revealed a finished basement and a tack shed that also weren’t on record with the county, and were added to the property’s value, she said.

“It is our responsibility by statute to discover, list and value all property in the county,” she said.

Part of Gavito’s objection centers around what he considers to be a mishandling of the appeals process. He said written information from the county indicated he had until Aug. 5 to have his appeal heard. But then he was given only three days’ notice for a hearing that was held 10 days ahead of that deadline, he said.

Due to a prior commitment, Gavito was unable to make his hearing and was only able to submit supporting comments in writing.

He found the limited notice frustrating, given how few appeals were filed.

“For five of us, they should have gone out of their way to hear the five, because they were the only ones complaining,” said Gavito.

County officials say Gavito misunderstood the Aug. 5 deadline. It referred to the latest date the county could hear appeals, not necessarily the latest date appeals would be heard.

Hurst noted that hearings are scheduled by the county attorney, as directed by the county commissioners.

Martin said the county tries to give a minimum of 10 days’ notification, and as many as 30 days. He has no idea why Gavito received only three days notice, and said he has asked the county legal department to find out when it was sent out.

Martin said that with only five protests, it made sense for the sake of efficiency to hold them all on one day.

He said the appeal board is willing to reschedule hearings if needed, but he had no indication that Gavito made such a request.

Gavito said it was no surprise that his appeal was denied.

“I thought I had the right to argue my case here, but the rules were changed for the benefit of my accusers,” he wrote in his letter.

Hurst said Gavito presented no information on real estate market sale information showing that his property was improperly valued compared to others.

Hurst said she would be happy to meet with Gavito and explain how his valuation was reached. That offer stands for anyone concerned about a valuation, she said.

“We definitely like to work with our taxpayers and don’t want to be in a bad position” with them, she said.

Gavito said he never contacted the assessor’s office, but did try to talk to others in the county when the hearing conflicted with his schedule, and ran into “dead ends” in trying to get assistance.

“It’s like, `That’s too bad, there’s nothing we can do.'”

Hurst estimated that based on Gavito’s new valuation, he will pay $250 per year more in taxes, at the most.

She said he had improvements to the property that go back a long way and weren’t accounted for until the reassessment, so he could have been paying a higher amount a lot longer.

Martin noted that Gavito’s valuation increase is based on his improvements and the increase in surrounding property values.

Gavito said he recognizes that, but his problem is with the process that was followed.

He objects to the idea that county commissioners can play a role in reviewing valuation appeals, given the fact that the county receives tax revenues based on those valuations.

Responded Hurst, “The commissioners don’t always go like we would like them to. Sometimes they lower the value, so I don’t agree with that at all.”

Martin noted that the county is far from the only governmental entity to benefit from tax valuation levels.

Special districts, such as schools and fire departments, receive significant portions of the revenue from the property tax bills residents pay each year.

Martin said the county gets blamed all the time by people who assume it all goes to the county, which values properties, and collects and distributes property taxes.

“It is confusing for folks, and I have empathy for Joe because he’s looking at the county coming in and taking all his money,” said Martin.

Hurst and Martin both noted that the process to have county commissioners hear appeals is established not by the county, but by state law.

That law, said state Rep. Gregg Rippy, R-Glenwood Springs, applies to all statutory counties, or those governed by state law rather than home rule.

Rippy said he’s never heard complaints before about county commissioners hearing tax assessment appeals.

He considers the present system better than having an appointed board conducting appeals, because county assessors and county commissioners are elected.

“If you’ve got either one of them not acting properly, it may not be as quickly as you’d like, but you can act at the ballot box,” he said.

“I think having accountability by elected officials is good.”

Martin pointed out that Gavito can go to arbitration or court if he disagrees with the decision on the appeal.

“How much more can we do to be fair?” he said.

Hurst encouraged Gavito to appeal to the next step if he still believes that an error has made, and that he couldn’t sell the house for what the county believes it to be worth.

Gavito said he had planned to press the matter through arbitration, but it would have required a trip to Grand Junction, and he was too busy with his business to be able to pursue it.


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