County, district shorted

County considers ways to recover lost property taxes

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Declining property values have contributed to Moffat County's financial woes, but the Moffat County Board of Commissioners is considering a couple of options to help regain property tax losses.

Four of the top five taxpayers in Moffat County are energy generation companies. The Craig Station Power Plant, which houses Tri-State Transmission and Generation, Pacificorp, Public Service Co., and Salt River Project, had a combined state assessed value of $134,125,000 in 2003.

That value was assessed by the state based on the plant's net operating income. The assessed values of those companies have been declining since 1994, when they peaked at $218,701,200. Commissioner Les Hampton has repeatedly stated the decline is due to the companies' accounting practices, rather than actual financial loss.

It's a problem that's left the county as well as Moffat County School District with less money than they had hoped for.

On Feb. 17, the commissioner board will meet with Vanessa Cameron of E3 Consultants, a Denver-based consulting firm. Cameron's company could assess the power plants and determine if the state's assessed values are accurate.

But it's a service that comes at considerable cost to the taxpayer. Hampton said Cameron told him the service could cost anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000.

The commissioner board is also considering hiring the services of Morgan County's assessor. The commissioner board has hired his services twice in the past at a reasonable cost, Hampton said.

"He has expertise. Each time we used him we had some relief," Hampton said.

Last June, the county had some luck when protesting the assessed value of Salt River Project. Based on one calculation process, the county argued, the company's value was actually $1.5 million higher than the assessed value. The county received an additional $29,000 in property taxes, Suzanne Brinks, Moffat County assessor, said.

But Salt River Project turned around and used the same calculation to assess their value for the two previous years, and found the values were actually lower than the assessed value. The state awarded them an abatement of $31,760, which the county had to pay back.

That check comes out of the county's pocket first, but taxpayers ultimately pay for it in higher taxes. A .119 mill levy was tacked on to the bills of county taxpayers to fund the abatement.

Moffat County School District follows the same process. They also owed Salt River Project a tax abatement, and it was paid for with a .16 mill levy increase on school district taxes.

In September, Brinks will travel to Denver to challenge a second abatement request from Salt River Project.

Although the state assesses these property values, they receive no funding from property taxes, Brinks said. Most states follow a similar property tax assessment policy regarding property taxes.

Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos said it is best for the county to continue challenging assessment on an individual basis. Attempting to change the state's policy could actually make things worse, and there is little support for such an action from other Colorado counties, she said.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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