Bill Aims to Limit Appeals by Pima Assessor after Surge of Assessor Appeals, Bill Would Cap Tax Court Decisions

By Woodhouse, Murphy | AZ Daily Star, January 25, 2018 | Go to article overview

Bill Aims to Limit Appeals by Pima Assessor after Surge of Assessor Appeals, Bill Would Cap Tax Court Decisions


Woodhouse, Murphy, AZ Daily Star


In the wake of an unprecedented number of appeals to state tax court by the Pima County assessor, legislation that would cap rulings in such cases is progressing in the Legislature.

Versions introduced in the state House and Senate would not allow the court's decisions on full cash values to exceed the amount "initially determined by the county assessor and appealed by the taxpayer," according to the text of the legislation.

Last November, a tax court judge ruled there is no bar against assessors seeking higher valuations than those initially set by their office. Also, those sued by the assessor face legal fees that can be substantial.

The measure was approved by the Senate finance committee 5-2 last week.

In 2017, Pima County Assessor Bill Staples, who opposes the bill, filed more than 40 appeals of decisions by the State Board of Equalization, which roughly equals the number of cases his office had previously filed since his election in 2004. As written, the bill would retroactively apply to suits filed after Dec. 31, 2016.

While not used for property tax purposes, full cash values set a ceiling for limited cash values, which are used to calculate all county primary and secondary property taxes and whose annual increases are capped by state law.

In the Senate and House the bill is sponsored by Republicans Sen. Warren Petersen of Gilbert and Rep. Todd Clodfelter of Tucson.

"Imagine having the assessor coming after you and filing a lawsuit," Petersen said at the start of last week's finance committee hearing. "This bill is about preventing government from being punitive."

Domingos Santos, a backer of the measure and attorney for several clients involved in cases that would be impacted by the bill if signed, said the legislation would give defendants certainty that there is only so high their full cash values could go and also decrease the likelihood that state assessors pursue such cases in the first place.

"The hope would be that the assessor would weigh the costs and benefits of filing that type of lawsuit," he said, adding that they can come with substantial costs for the county as a whole.

For property owners being sued, Domingos said of the intended impacts of the bill, they could simply decide to not fight it -- thus avoiding legal costs and other expenses -- and rest easy that any tax court decision could not be greater than the original notice they received from the assessor.

Staples, who testified in opposition at the hearing, said current constitutional provisions protect taxpayers from wild swings in property tax burdens by capping annual increases in taxable limited cash values at 5 percent, even if full cash values rise more substantially.

"What (the bill) does is it's seeking to grant relief that already exists," Staples said.

Staples did not respond to a request for comment on how the bill -- if signed into law -- would affect his office's handling of Board of Equalization appeals, among other questions.

Properties that had undergone substantial improvements or construction could see sizable increases in taxable values, but there are only a handful of such properties involved in the suits his office filed in 2017, Staples said during his testimony, referencing so-called Rule B calculations.

"For Rule B folks, the property tax implication are substantial," said Santos, who is representing such a client, according to court documents.

Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen said Santos' interest in the bill is "obvious. …

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