With declining reimbursements from the state to county assessors’ offices over the past several years, Phelps County Assessor Bill Wiggins said he worries his office won’t be able to appropriately assess property values next year.

With declining reimbursements from the state to county assessors’ offices over the past several years, Phelps County Assessor Bill Wiggins said he worries his office won’t be able to appropriately assess property values next year.

Earlier this month, Wiggins sent an email to state lawmakers and candidates, making a plea to find a solution to what he calls a “growing funding problem” for county assessors’ offices.

In the email, Wiggins cited section 137.750 of the state statutes, which authorizes the state to reimburse one half of most of the costs of reassessment provided that the county is in compliance with its assessment and equalization maintenance plan.

County assessors are required to prepare and submit a two-year assessment plan on or before Jan. 1 of each even-numbered year. These plans must be approved by the county commission and the State Tax Commission. Assessments are done in odd-numbered years, meaning 2013 will be the next assessment year.

However, Wiggins said reimbursements have not been close to the one-half mark for years.

In 2006, the state reimbursement was $6.20 per parcel, Wiggins said, but state budget cuts gradually have reduced that funding.

In 2007, the state reimbursed counties $6 for each property parcel. It fell to $4 per property in 2009.

Wiggins said during the legislative session after January 2011, legislators moved the reimbursement rate down to $3.41 per parcel and this past legislative session, it declined to $3 per parcel, the lowest allowed under Missouri law.

Wiggins said it costs the Phelps County assessor’s office about $24.93 to assess each parcel. According to state certified numbers from 2009, there were about 22,485 parcels in Phelps County.

By dropping the reimbursement rate from $3.41 per parcel to $3 per parcel, Wiggins said that translates to a difference of $9,208.85 that could have been part of his state reimbursement, but now he has to come up with that money.

Wiggins noted that when he submitted his plan, he had to budget his appraisal process based on the $3.41-per-parcel rate. However, since legislators lowered that reimbursement rate to $3, his budget is not as accurate.

Wiggins said he believes the number of parcels in the county has dropped since that 2009 number, which helps a little, but noted it still takes lots of time and gas money to visit every parcel in Phelps County.

The Phelps County Assessor’s Office employees who deal with real estate include two full-time appraisers and two part-time appraisers, as well as one mapper who does field appraisal too, Wiggins explained.

Wiggins said outside of the state reimbursement cuts, he personally has cut $60,000 out of his office’s budget from the 2011 levels, restoring the assessment budget from six consecutive negative budgets.

“I have instituted cost-saving paperless procedures and policies that will make the taxpayer’s process easier and less complicated,” he said, noting that he would like to move toward a paperless environment and have his appraisers input data on site.

“I am committed to reducing costs wherever possible and to continually create a better process for taxpayers,” he said.

Wiggins said he has already had to plan to reduce staff at the end of the year and is working diligently at streamlining procedures and cutting costs to avoid losing another employee before next year’s budget cycle.

State mandate

Wiggins said the state keeps cutting reimbursements, however the assessments are a state mandate.

The 1945 Constitution of Missouri requires that all real and tangible personal property be assessed at its value or a percentage of the value fixed by law. The courts have interpreted “value” to be synonymous with market value or true value in money.

However, prior to 1979, this constitutional requirement was largely ignored, and assessments throughout the state lacked uniformity.

The 1979 Missouri Supreme Court case of Cassilly v. Riney held that the system of assessment in St. Louis County violated the uniformity provisions of the state constitution.

From this case, the State Tax Commission ordered St. Louis County to submit a plan for general revaluation of the county and then directed all other counties to supply a general plan for reassessment or a request for a hearing, which began the process that is still in place today.

The total cost to the state of Missouri for the Court-ordered reassessment was $125 million in 1980s dollars. Using an inflation rate calculation, that would amount to a “lowball” cost of $266 million today, Wiggins said.

He noted that the returns of the reassessment process come back to several local taxing districts, including cities and fire districts, with most of the returns going to schools.

“Something needs to be accomplished or we won’t be able to appropriately assess property values,” Wiggins wrote in his email.