CLAY COUNTY — As property assessment increases go into effect for thousands of Clay County residents, County Clerk Megan Thompson and County Assessor Cathy Rinehart said the clerk's office is understaffed to handle the potential onslaught of appeals.
The clerk's office, per state statute, is required to handle Board of Equalization hearing requests made by those seeking a formal assessment appeal and also compiles valuations, tax levies and school district enumerations for county taxing entities along with certifying levy rates.
“We are the go-between for the assessor's office, the Board of Equalization and the public,” Thompson said.
Rinehart said roughly 75,000 to 80,000 value-change notices were sent to property owners who saw 2019 assessment increases. Values increased upwards of 25 percent for residential property and upwards of 50 percent for commercial property. The amount of those impacted, Rinehart said, is more than double those in 2015.
“In 2015, we sent out 30,000 value-change notices and the complaint that I have, is that we had four people working in the clerk's office and she barely got the numbers back to me so I could do the recertification. The recertification, or the 11A form as its called, is what all the taxing entities set their levies on,” she said. “If they can't set their levy, we got a problem.”
Taxing entities such as local school districts rely on levy figures from the county to set rates to help determine how much local tax revenue they will receive each year.
“Sixty to 70 percent of all the revenue generated for schools comes from the assessment department numbers,” Rinehart said.
While she doesn't know how many people will seek appeals, Rinehart said if 5 percent of impacted property owners seek an appeal it will equal 4,000 people.
“That's more than anybody's ever had,” she said. “And five percent is the norm. It's going to be hairy.”
Since reassessment letters went out at the start of April, many Cay County residents have been taking to social media to voice frustrations and express dismay at increases.
"Ours went from $183,000 to $200,200! How do we appeal?," wrote Linda Powell in a Clay County audit supportive group on Facebook.
All county assessors in Missouri are required to value real estate property in the county as of Jan. 1 of each odd-numbered year. Valuation increases, which are an attempt by the assessment to get to the property's fair market value, are impacted by a number of factors including market conditions. Clay County is in a housing shortage with more demand than supply, resulting in bidding wars for residences that inflate costs.
The clerk's office is down two full-time staffers from four, although Thompson was able to bring one part-time staffer on with county allotted funds. The clerk's budget was cut in December 2017 in what Thompson contends was political retribution for voting against salary increases for elected officials and after reporting county staff in the finance department's allegedly tampered with public documents. Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway said the clerk's budget was cut after custodian of records duties were removed from Thompson's office after Thompson put the county at risk legally for not properly performing the custodian of records duties.
Ridgeway said she has tried to work with Thompson and Rinehart on getting data as to how many appeals may be sought, the workload involved and finding creative solutions to the staffing issue, such as looking for ways to find volunteers from other departments and outside entities to help. The work for potential appeals, Ridgeway contends is seasonal, so increasing the clerk's full-time staff doesn't make sense.
“When I spoke in person to (Chief Deputy Clerk) Sandy Baldwin in the clerk’s office, she said that she typically handles most of the appeals work. She indicated that, in the past, she only remembers 300 or so appeals and was expecting up to double that this year. But she said it was work she thought was manageable. At that time, I discussed options for supplying temporary help at BOE appeals time to the clerk’s office and also other options to cover any extra workload. Sandy Baldwin appeared willing to work this out,” she said. “... The clerk has been consistent in asking, in general, for both positions to be restored to her office that were taken after she was no longer custodian of records. However, her previous requests were not tied to BOE, but rather to her desire to give base salary increases to two of her employee although their job duties appear to have stayed the same or have been reduced. The clerk blew through her budget salary lines in 2018 which required the commission to add money in order for her employees to get paid through the end of 2018.”
Both Rinehart and Thompson said Ridgeway is incorrect in thinking work in the clerk's office is seasonal, saying while increase notices are sent in odd years, assessment-related work takes place all year, every year and volunteers aren't enough as staffers need to be bonded, have extensive knowledge of the assessment process and cannot have a potential conflict of interest, per the state.
“The clerk can't bond a volunteer. … Luann is not bonded. Commission staff can't do it because that's a conflict of interest, my staff can't do it because that's a conflict of interest; and the statutes are very clear, it has to be the clerk,” Rinehart said.
Baldwin said county leaders who do not work in the clerk's office don't understand the amount of work and time that goes into the assessment process in the clerk's office, adding the clerk's office performs a slew of assessment duties throughout each year. Baldwin said the amount of BOE appeals requests were less last year, at about 300, because it wasn't a reassessment year.
“We really work with the taxpayer to let them know what they need. We follow up on them because it's a legal process and it's a due process of law. … We try to help them at every turn because they don't know what they can do,” she said.
“In Clay County, we really pride ourselves in giving people that special touch in helping them,” Thompson said, adding BOE hearings are held every year, but they are not as high in numbers as in reassessment years. “Every year we have a BOE process.”
Rinehart and Thompson said they have been sounding the alarm about the potential for issues for months, but commissioners have not provided adequate funding for a proper solution.
“We will do our best and work as diligently as we can, but we don't have staff. We're not ready and we don't want to shortchange the public,” Thompson said.
Presiding Clay County Commissioner Jerry Nolte has attempted to address funding for the clerk's office and her office staff for some time, but is outvoted by Ridgeway and Western Commissioner Gene Owen at each turn on efforts to address the matter in public commission meetings.
On Monday, April 8, Nolte said he is calling for a special session of the commission in May to try and deal with the lack of staff in the clerk's office.