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Eagle County tax bills open eyes

EL JEBEL – Eagle County residents of the Roaring Fork Valley were floored Saturday when they opened their tax bills for 2009.

The property tax hikes ranged from 12 percent for a homeowner in Missouri Heights to 57 percent for a resident of the Hill District in Basalt.

Property owners who were paying attention knew their bills were headed up. The state conducted a revaluation last year that reflected property prices as of June, 30, 2008 – before the recession whacked the market. Nevertheless, the consequences of the higher valuations weren’t entirely clear until the tax bills arrived.

Pitkin County residents will begin feeling the pain as early as Wednesday, when tax bills start arriving. Eagle County got a jump on the process by mailing out 40,210 tax bills on Jan. 14. Bills arrived at the homes and businesses of taxpayers in the Basalt and El Jebel areas on Saturday.

“It sucks,” said former Basalt mayor and midvalley businessman Rick Stevens when asked for his reaction to his bill. “I imagine a lot of people fell out of their chairs when they opened their mail.”

Stevens said the property tax on his home increased about $1,000, or 20 percent, from 2008 to 2009. His bill would have soared even more but he protested the county’s valuation of his home on Riverside Drive in Basalt last year and won an adjustment.

Many residents saw an even more drastic increase in their tax bills. Across Basalt in the River Oaks subdivision, Bud Eylar is facing a 46 percent property tax increase.

“It’s going to be a hit for us this year,” Eylar said. “I think we were expecting it to go up, but we were really surprised it went up by two grand.”

Eylar said he and his wife knew the hike was coming because the county’s valuation of their house shot up more than 100 percent last year.

Just outside the Basalt town limits, the owners of a humble abode in the Sopris Village subdivision saw their property taxes increase $835, or 41 percent. The house soared in value by 52 percent in 2009, according to Eagle County.

Residents of Basalt’s Hill District saw even more drastic tax hikes. Sopris Drive resident Jim Paussa’s taxes jumped nearly $2,000, or 57 percent.

Paussa took it in stride, saying there was nothing “sinister” involved in the adjustments. The county assessor’s office was following the rules spelled out by the state by conducting a revaluation in 2009. The revaluation is required every other year.

The value of most homes has plummeted since data was collected for the adjustments, Paussa noted, but usually values are higher than the amount used for figuring taxes.

“Nobody wants to complain when their values are going up,” he said. “Now we’re faced with the hard facts” of the economy changing.

Not everyone in Eagle County cringed when they opened their tax bills. Missouri Heights homeowner and Aspen Times Travel Editor Andy Stone said his taxes increased by a couple hundred dollars.

“My valuation went up 30 percent, and my taxes went up 12 percent,” Stone said. “I was expecting somewhat of a bigger hit.”

Most people usually ignore their tax bills and absorb increases into their mortgage payments. This year is different – everyone is keeping a closer eye on their household budgets during the tough economic times, Paussa said. So big increases in expenses like taxes hurt more.

Paussa said the higher tax bills are a product of various taxing entities building their levies over time. Voters approve funding for one worthwhile project one year, then approve another project the next. Before they realize it, the cumulative effect starts to pinch their pocketbooks. “It all adds up,” he said.

The skyrocketing property valuations put taxing districts in position to reap large windfalls this year. Many taxing district lowered their tax rates so they didn’t reap the entire windfall. A handful in the valley didn’t take any windfall; others took the entire amount.

While Eylar felt the pain as a homeowner hit with a hefty tax increase, he also viewed the situation from a taxing entity’s perspective. He is president of the Basalt Regional Library District’s board of directors. The district didn’t lower it mill levy because it opened a new facility Jan. 4 in Basalt. It moved out of a 3,800-square-foot space into a new 21,500-square-foot building. The district’s board decided to keep its entire windfall because it is uncertain how much utilities and other operational costs in the new facility will run, he said.

Stevens said more accountability is needed among the taxing entities, without taking aim at any in particular. Tax rates need to be considered more as a whole, not individually, to gauge the effect on residents.

“It’s totally out of control,” Stevens said. “It’s time that somebody holds them accountable.”

Eagle County Commissioner Jon Stavney said there haven’t been a lot complaints to him since the tax bills were received. Many people understood what was unfolding, so there have been some regular complaints.

“What I hear from people is they don’t like it … when their bills go up,” he said.

On the other hand, he believes many constituents were aware of what was unfolding with revaluations and tax rates. The Eagle County commissioners voted not to lower their tax rate. The county took the entire $1.8 million windfall created by the higher valuations. But they also took actions to fortify the county’s financial position. They cut 30 positions and reduced the average budget of county departments by 13 percent.

“I don’t know that the county’s ever gone through a bloodletting like is just went through,” Stavney said.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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