'Tis the season: Janesville city assessor offers primer on assessments

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Marcia Nelesen
Saturday, April 26, 2014

JANESVILLE--It's that time of year.

Some Janesville residents this week will receive notice of their assessments. Open book review will be scheduled and the board of review is being seated.

Assessments help determine what residents pay in property taxes.

Richard Haviza, city assessor, answered questions about what often is a misunderstood issue:

Q: Why should I care about my assessment?

A: Because it is used to decide how much you pay in property taxes. Those taxes pay the budgets to support the taxing jurisdictions: the city, schools and county. The total assessed value of the city, including commercial and manufacturing properties, determines the tax rate. Your property taxes are calculated by multiplying the tax rate by the assessed value of your property.

Q: How are assessments different from appraisals?

A: Both are estimates of fair market value but are used for different purposes. Assessments are used for municipal purposes. Appraisals are used in the private sector. While a homeowner can expect them to be different, they should be within reason of each other.

Q: How does the city determine the value of my property?

A: Assessing staff enters property data into a computer program based on a model used nationwide. Factors that raise your value include square footage, the number of toilets and sinks, decks, fireplaces and finished basements.

Q: How does the city know what I have in my home?

A: Through the years, staff members have and continue to inspect individual properties. They also update their data when properties sell or when building permits are issued.

Q: Why is correct data important?

A: So you pay your fair share of property taxes. For example, if you remodel your kitchen but the city doesn't know, the new value is not reflected in your assessment.

Q: My assessment has remained the same for the last several years. Why?

A: Most years, the city does simple maintenance assessments. It does not consider appreciation or depreciation of the market.

In maintenance years, the city changes the assessments only on properties that had certain types of physical changes. For example, a home may have sold, and the assessor's use that information to update their data. Or, you may have taken out a building permit to make improvements.

The assessor's office also has a new goal to inspect properties that haven't been inspected for 10 years or more.

Q: If my assessment remains the same, why do my taxes change?

A: Back to the taxing jurisdictions: The city, county and schools, including Blackhawk Technical College, set their budgets every year. Generally speaking, the amount of total tax to be collected goes up.

“So that means, generally, there's going to be a change in the amount of tax each person pays,” Haviza said.

If the total tax levy was unchanged and the total assessed value of all properties remained unchanged in that same year, the tax rate wouldn't change and your individual property tax wouldn't change.

Q: How and when does the city determine true market value?

A: The city does market updates or full revaluations.

The city last did a market update in 2011. A market update captures changes in those properties with physical changes but also market appreciation or depreciation.

The city has not done a full revaluation since 1998. A full revaluation requires inspections of all properties.

The state Department of Revenue recommends a full revaluation every 10 years. Haviza suggested to the council in 2009 that one be done, but the cost, estimated at $1.5 million to $2 million, was considered prohibitive.

Q: Why must the city update its value?

A: The state Department of Revenue requires the city's assessed value to be within 10 percent of fair market value. A city must be within that range at least one year out of every four years. The goal is for all communities to pay their fair shares of taxes.

Q: How many properties a year does the city inspect?

A: The city on average inspects between 1,500 to 2,500 properties. In 2013, the city had 24,007 properties.

In the early 2000s, the goal was to visit a home once every five years. That was abandoned after a controversial period during which residents gathered enough signatures to ask the state to review the city's assessment process.

Now, the department has set a new goal to inspect individual properties at least once every 10 years.

The city in advance of the 2014 assessment role inspected 2,481 properties. Of those, 415 had not been inspected in more than 10 years.

“We tend to visit the ones that change frequently, take out building permits, or they sell,” Haviza said. “There are properties we probably haven't been into in 20 years.”

Q: How will a property inspector contact me if he or she wants to inspect my property?

A: The assessor's office will send a letter asking you to call to set an appointment.

Q: Can I decline to have my house inspected?

A: Yes. But under state law, you could forfeit your right to appeal. The assessor may still revalue your property using the best information available, such as exterior inspections, building permits and descriptions from property sales.

Q: What if I don't agree with my assessment?

A: You can make an appointment for open book by calling 608-755-3045, but Haviza suggests you wait to call until you receive your assessments. In a maintenance year such as this year, 10 percent or fewer of all properties change value and receive notices.

If you schedule an open book appointment, you should bring any information to support your claim, such as information about your home's physical condition or the assessments of comparable properties. Haviza said residents many times believe their properties are comparable to others when they are not. About 100 residents on average attend open book.

Q: What if I still do not agree with my assessment?

A: You can appear before the board of review, made up of residents appointed by the council. The board reviews the information in a quasi-judicial setting.

If you still want to challenge your assessment, you can appeal to the state Department of Revenue in a process similar to the local board of review. Or you can file an appeal in Rock County Court, where a judge reviews the record to make sure the city acted under law.

Assessments are a “double-edged sword,” he said.

“Everybody always wants their property to be worth a lot of money when they are putting it up for sale,” he said.

Q: After reading this, I still question the fairness of my property assessment.

A: “Based on my years of experience, many people have the perception that the property taxation process is not fair,” Haviza said.

But assessors work to make sure assessments are accurate and residents pay their fair shares, he said.

If you think your property taxes are too high, you should talk to school board, county board and city council members. They are the ones who decide spending, he said.

First, you should consider the services provided for the taxes you pay, Haviza said.



JANESVILLE--Since 2012, Janesville City Council agendas have begun to include claims of excessive assessments filed by property owners, mostly businesses.

The council routinely denies the claims, after which the property owners can then appeal in Rock County Court or to the state Department of Revenue.

From 2011 to 2013, property owners have filed claims of excessive assessments for 20 parcels.

Of those:

-- Seven were dismissed in court or sustained by the state Department of Revenue.

-- The city settled without the owners of three parcels before the cases went to court.

-- A judge in another case set the property's value between that set by the city and the owner.

-- In another case, the property owner withdrew the appeal.

-- Four cases remain in court, including Sears Holdings, Target and Firstar Bank/US Bank..

-- Four, including Menards and Blain Supply, have submitted claims to the city and are expected to soon file court actions.

Richard Haviza, city assessor, noted there were 24,007 properties in the city in 2013, so those 20 claims amount to about 0.08 percent of the total.

“That's not a big number,” Haviza said.

Still, it could be a trend that continues here and in the rest of the state.

Haviza said the city's attorney told him several hundred similar cases are going on statewide. For example, Target also has appealed assessments in Appleton and Eau Claire.

In 2013, the city settled out of court with William Hesser.

Hesser protested assessments on his home and car dealerships. The council eventually agreed to lower his business and personal assessments by $1 million and issued rebates totaling $48,205 for taxes paid in 2011 and 2012.

It makes more financial sense for a business owner with a large assessment to file an appeal.

Any changes in a home assessment might not be worth the time and expense, David Moore, Hesser's attorney, said at the time.

“It's a question of looking at taxes over the long term as opposed to taxes in any one year,” Moore said.

To dispute assessments, residents must wait until the end of the year to receive their taxes based on the assessments. They must pay the taxes and then file claims against the city by the end of January.

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