ASPEN - County assessor elections are usually a snooze-fest. Maybe not so much this year.
The incumbent assessors in Pitkin and Eagle counties said the controversy over soaring property valuations in a recession - through not fault of their own - could complicate their re-election bids in November.
"There's a stigma out there that the assessor increased the [property] values," Eagle County Assessor Mark Chapin said.
He is running for a second term. Pitkin County Assessor Tom Isaac, first elected in 1990, is seeking a sixth term. Both candidates are Democrats.
Any property owner in the Roaring Fork Valley is well versed in the controversy surrounding property values for 2009. Assessors are mandated by the state to reassess property every other year, in the odd years. The process requires that they base the latest valuations from market prices as of June 30 of the prior year.
So the revaluations released in May 2009 reflected sales prices as of June 2008, before the market took a big hit. Thousands of property owners in both counties were upset with the high valuations, which translate into higher taxes.
Isaac said Monday the methodology and the time frame used to set property values is dictated by the state. "There's only so much leeway," he said.
Further limiting the leeway is the fact that the state government conducts an audit of each county's assessments each year. It picks property at random and verifies that the county assessor's values were within 5 percent of market prices. If a county fails the audit, it must recalculate values.
Despite the strict state controls, county assessors are often scapegoats in the eyes of angry or cash-strapped property owners faced with higher property tax bills.
"We're sort of stuck holding the ball," Chapin said.
About 8,000 Eagle County residents protested their property valuations. Roughly 50 percent received an adjustment.
There were 4,576 protests filed over valuations in Pitkin County. About one-third of protesters received adjustments.
Chapin said most adjustments were made in Eagle County when inaccurate information fouled assessments. For example, county zoning information can be incorrect or the square footage of a house can be recorded wrong, he said.
Chapin said his office received another round of calls when the tax bills were mailed last month - so anger and confusion over the property values and tax bills lingers.
The next reassessment will be made in 2011, based on prices as of June 30, 2010. Based on current data, Chapin expects property values to fall by 20 percent or more. "The values are going to be demonstrably lower," he said.
Tax bills will decline if taxing districts don't increase their mill levies. Chapin said he stresses to people that they must get involved in the budget processes of the various taxing district if they want to influence their tax bills.
Isaac said he doesn't believe the higher valuations from last May should enter into his race. "I don't really see that as a political issue," he said.
Instead he feels his performance should be judged on whether or not his staff is valuing property "fairly, equitably and consistently." He believes it is.
Both assessors said they support tweaking the state-mandated reassessment process. Isaac favors using sales prices as of Jan. 1 of the same year of the reassessment. So for the May 2011 reassessment, he would like the state to use Jan. 1, 2011, market prices as a basis for comparison rather than June 30, 2010. That would satisfy property owners because it more closely resembles current values, but still gives the assessor's staff time to perform their jobs. Chapin prefers performing reassessments annually.
Neither expects any drastic changes in the process, so they will work in the campaign to convince voters that the reassessment process is largely out of their hands.