Joco 913

County appraiser holds onto his post — barely

County Appraiser Paul Welcome held onto his job by the skin of his teeth Thursday as a split county commission narrowly approved his reappointment to another four-year term.

The commission voted 4-3 to reappoint Welcome, with some commissioners on the “no” side saying a high volume of complaints about property values influenced their votes.

The county appraiser sets the value on which property taxes are paid. This year property values took a decided upswing, and some commissioners have been taking the heat. Some 96 percent of residential properties increased in value this year an average of 7 percent. Other types of property also saw an increase

“I have had many phone calls and emails about property valuation,” and changes in property classifications, said Commissioner Mike Brown, one of the “no” votes. “It’s my job to represent the taxpayer and constituent and I heard plenty from them that they were not happy. That makes me unhappy.”

Commissioners Steve Klika and Michael Ashcraft also voted against Welcome’s reappointment.

Brown’s Southwestern district, which includes Spring Hill, Gardner and Edgerton, had some of the highest increases. Spring Hill topped the list with values increasing about 16.5 percent.

Welcome was first appointed county appraiser in 1991 and has usually enjoyed unanimous reappointments. He said the Thursday vote and discussion was the toughest one he’s experienced.

“If I’ve learned one thing it’s that you have to take it as it comes,” he said.

This year’s revaluation was higher because of a strong market, he said. For example, there is a 2 1/2 month supply of homes available for sale rather than the usual six months, making it a seller’s market. Demand has also stayed strong and the county has seen increases in other categories as well, he said.

But the higher values this year brought about a lot of appeals, he said. There have been around 5,000 residential appeals at the first tier in the appeals process. The typical number is closer to 3,000.

The higher values may have been a surprise to some who have not been keeping an eye on the market, he said.

“Values have been going up so rapidly and a lot of people don’t keep track of what’s happening in the market that well. They can’t build them fast enough right now,” he said of new homes.

Re-classification of agricultural property was another issue Welcome and commissioners got a lot of feedback on.

Klika, whose district includes the southern part of the county, also got an earful this year, much of it about re-classification. Agricultural land is appraised based on yield and factors other than market value, resulting in lower property taxes than residential or commercial.

“While I don’t have an issue with Paul, I do have concerns relative to constituents,” he said. “It’s not so much the end result. It’s the process and how it’s being handled.”

Welcome’s office has been taking a close look at land classified as agricultural in recent years. Landowners can claim that classification as long as some agricultural product is produced. In the past, developers have made big tax savings simply by growing a little hay. But sometimes baling hay on future commercial property falls by the wayside once the land is platted and development is imminent, Welcome said. In those cases, the land could be re-classified.

County commissioners who balked at reappointing Welcome expressed frustration at the strictures imposed by the system. While commissioners take a lot of the heat for higher land values, there’s very little they can actually do about it.

Commissioners are forbidden by state law from being directly involved in setting property values. That’s to avoid corruption that could result from the temptation to swap low land values for votes and other favors. Commissioners know the process used to set values, but can’t order any changes.

That oversight falls to the Kansas Department of Revenue. Officials from the department’s Division of Property Valuation met with commissioners June 1 for an informational presentation, but no complaints about Welcome’s performance were raised at that time.

Commissioners also aren’t in on the appraiser’s employee reviews. That’s done by the county manager’s office.

That leaves the reappointment vote as their only opportunity to send a message.

Ashcraft said he would have liked to at least have had an executive session, and he would have liked to see the report on Welcome from the manager’s office before casting a vote.

“I’m not going to say anything bad about Paul but I don’t have a basis for making a decision,” he said.

Both Klika and Ashcraft voted for Welcome’s reappointment four years ago, but said this year they would have liked to have had more of a review before committing to another term. Brown, who is new to the commission this year, said he hopes the close vote will bring about a future dialog between the commission and the appraiser’s office about policy.

Commission Chairman Ed Eilert supported Welcome’s reappointment, noting the state puts many restrictions on how property is appraised.

“Mr. Welcome does an outstanding job in a very, very difficult area,” he said.

Appraisers have their own set of stringent rules for setting value, and the Johnson County office has been within the compliance of those rules each year since he was first appointed, Welcome said. Appraisers are not allowed to consider what the county’s revenue needs are to set values.