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Jackson County assessor resigns over thousands of flawed notices

Updated: 2013-06-22T03:05:48Z

By MIKE HENDRICKS

The Kansas City Star

Jackson County Director of Assessment Curtis Koons resigned Friday, taking responsibility for what he acknowledged was an error-laden 2013 reassessment process.

In a letter to County Executive Mike Sanders, Koons apologized to him, the County Legislature “and most importantly, the citizens of Jackson County for the mistakes that were made.”

The Star also has learned that a few days before the resignation, a letter came to light showing that a consultant warned Koons earlier this year of flawed assessment data. Yet notices to taxpayers went out based on that data.

Koons’ decision to quit his $102,606 courthouse job also comes as revised notices went out this week to owners of the 68,000 residential properties that came up for reassessment this year.

Some 58,000 of those were single-family homes and duplexes that county officials thought needed review to see if the market values assigned to them were reasonable.

When the first notices went out in May, many taxpayers were upset when they saw their values go up 20, 30, 40 percent and more. The property-tax bills they receive in the fall are tied to the values set by the Assessment Department.

That subsequent review ordered by Sanders resulted in new notices that began landing in mail boxes Thursday. They still reflect increases for many taxpayers, but with a few exceptions there aren’t the steep spikes that saw Koons and the Sanders administration come under heavy criticism.

County Legislator Scott Burnett said increases of 9, 10, 11 percent were common among taxpayers he’s been hearing from this time around. Compared to those earlier increases, few people are complaining.

“They think it’s reasonable,” Burnett said. “It’s like getting pummeled with some guys’ fist 10 times, and then he comes back and hits you two times, it doesn’t seem so bad.”

County officials said it was inevitable that market values would rise in some areas because the assessor’s office hadn’t inspected those neighborhoods in a decade or more.

But the initial steep hikes were stunning in neighborhoods like Hyde Park, Coleman Highlands and Valentine. Koons and other Sanders administration officials attended a number of neighborhood meetings to hear complaints over the last five weeks.

Koons and consultants hired by the county have said the errors were caused, in part, because of flaws in a computer model. Comparisons between the values of dissimilar houses produced inaccurate results.

Even before the initial notices went out, one consultant, Tyler Technologies, warned Koons that the system was flawed with “significant data issues.”

That letter, one of many documents and emails obtained by The Star under the state open records law, was dated March 1 — two months before the initial assessment notices were sent out.

When he got a look at the letter for the first time this week, Sanders’ chief of staff Calvin Williford emailed Koons to say the Tyler letter “concerns me greatly.”

Less than three days later, Koons offered his letter of resignation.

In it, he cited a lack of communication between him and those he reported to in the Sanders administration.

“I regret my failure to inform my superior of the difficulties that were occurring,” Koons wrote, “and the subsequent decisions that I made.”

Koons was in a series of meetings Friday and could not be reached for comment. Although he offered to resign immediately, Koons said that “as a practical matter” he would like to stay on through the informal appeals process that ends July 22.

It’s unclear, however, whether Koons will be staying on until then. Sanders declined to comment on Koons and other issues concerning reassessment until an internal review is complete.

“The review includes an examination of all facets of the decision making process and the persons responsible,” he said Friday in a written statement. “It is critical that there be continued accountability to the public when errors have occurred. Until this review process is completed, final decisions and public comments on all of these issues will not be made.”

Within the Sanders administration, Koons has earned accolades for his work in recent weeks to fix the errors with help from outside consultants.

Koons is the former elected assessor of Cass County and former president of the Missouri State Assessors Association. Sanders hired him in 2007 to improve the Assessment Department and bring property values up to date on the county tax rolls.

The idea was to tackle that in three reassessment periods, in 2011, this year and in 2015. However, Koons and Sanders have warned since last fall that cuts in state funding might hurt the department’s ability to do its work.

Four county legislators reached for comment on Friday — Burnett, Dennis Waits, Bob Spence and Fred Arbanas — all characterized Koons as a good man with a difficult job who for one reason or another failed at getting the reassessment process right the first time around.

“It’s one of those cases,” Spence said, “where the job got away from him.”

And when that happens, Spence and the others said, there are inevitable consequences.

“Something like this takes place,” Arbanas said, “heads roll.”

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738 or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com.

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