Government & Politics

As Jackson County assessments roil property owners, plan to cap increases gets tabled

As Jackson County property owners troubled by big hikes in tax assessments started making their appeals Thursday morning, the Board of Equalization sidelined a proposal to cap increases, saying it’s incomplete.

Preston Smith, a board member who represents the Blue Springs School District, said his analysis of the biennial Jackson County assessment of property for tax purposes targeted households in the county’s poorest areas for the highest increases in value, potentially resulting in unfair hikes for those who can least afford it.

“Basically what we have right now is a train wreck,” Smith said in the packed hearing chamber of the Jackson County Legislature, where the Board of Equalization met Thursday morning.

Jackson County is responsible for inspecting its 300,000 land parcels and assigning each a market value that is converted to a property tax bill through a mathematical calculation. The county is fielding tens of thousands of informal appeals, and likely thousands of formal appeals to the 2019 assessment as about a third of the county’s properties increased by more than 15%, some doubling or even tripling in value.

Increases in value could result in higher property tax bills. But because levies could get rolled back later this year, it’s difficult to know how much taxes will go up. Property owners are concerned about getting priced out of their homes if taxes go up substantially.

Property owners who dispute the accuracy of their valuation can appeal the county’s findings to the Board of Equalization.

Smith’s proposal would cap value increases at 14% because he thinks the county botched this year’s assessment.

KC Tenants, an advocacy organization that promotes equity and affordability in local housing, called Smith’s proposal “a positive solution.”

“We respectfully ask that you vote in favor of Preston’s Smith’s proposal for a more just valuation of property values in our county,” KC Tenants wrote in a letter to the Jackson County Board of Equalization.

But the Board of Equalization voted Thursday to table Smith’s proposal.

Christopher Smith, chairman of the Board of Equalization and an appointee of County Executive Frank White, said Preston Smith’s proposal was incomplete and that the board would need more information from him.

Thursday’s vote came after White announced he would “staunchly oppose” the cap, saying it was full of legal issues and could create further inequity in the county’s property assessments.

Bryan Covinsky, Jackson County counselor, wrote in a memo that Preston Smith’s proposal could “arbitrarily limit valuation increases” to all parcels, regardless of whether it’s residential, commercial or agricultural and could disregard increases that were due to new construction and improvements.

Smith acknowledged after the Board of Equalization meeting that his analysis did not address what impact his plan would have on commercial property, of which some high-profile parcels have been undervalued for years.

In 2017, The Star reported that Jackson County valued the 26 parcels that make up the Country Club Plaza at $375 million, well below the $660 million price for which it sold in 2016. In determining the market value of a property, county assessors attempt to estimate what a property would sell for in an arms-length transaction, meaning that the buyer and seller have no preexisting relationship. An actual sale reflects a property’s worth on an open market.

Other commercial properties in Jackson County are believed to be undervalued, too.

Smith said he didn’t analyze commercial property valuations because he was more interested representing the average person.

Crosby Kemper III, interviewed by The Star about the undervaluation of commercial property in Jackson County in 2017, said, “Who’s getting screwed here? The average Kansas City taxpayer is getting screwed.”

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Steve Vockrodt is an award-winning investigative journalist who has reported in Kansas City since 2005. Areas of reporting interest include business, politics, justice issues and breaking news investigations. Vockrodt grew up in Denver and studied journalism at the University of Kansas.