Record number of property owners fight for lower taxes

Ralph Millard watched the house he bought a decade ago for $285,000 jump to almost $1 million during the boom, then plunge in value when the housing market collapsed.

Last week, Millard, 74, pressed a Clark County board to lower the taxable value on his southwest valley home to $300,000 from the $386,000 that the county had assessed.

The Board of Equalization split the difference, pegging the value at $341,000, and then telling Millard he could appeal to the state board if he disagreed.

“I’m going to accept it at this point,” Millard said. “It’s not going to save a tremendous amount on taxes, but I’m on a fixed income. Fuel, food, power — they’re all going up.”

Millard is like many people struggling to make every dollar count in the recession.

He was among the record number of property owners — 10,658 — who challenged their taxable values this year. They include businesses whose commercial parcels were expected to depreciate sharply in the depressed market.

The appeals lopped about $8 billion from the county’s $162 billion in this year’s taxable property values.

County officials have yet to tally the actual revenue lost this year through the appeals. The losses will be on top of the $130 million drop in property taxes projected for the next budget year.

About 40 entities depend on the money, including the county, cities, libraries, the school district and fire districts. Last year, thinner revenue caused local governments to cut some services and staff.

THE APPEALING CROWD

The assessor’s office has received a record volume of appeals every year since the real estate market tanked. It is becoming an annual routine.

This year’s volume surpassed the 8,300 appeals in 2010 and the 6,080 in 2009, when the number began to skyrocket. In 2008, about 1,370 owners filed appeals.

Appellants range from humble homeowners to mega-casinos. All have seen their fortunes dip to some degree and now seek a break on their property taxes.

It’s natural when times are hard to want to save every dollar you can on taxes, said Assistant Assessor Rocky Steele.

This year, an estimated 280,000 homeowners, about 44 percent in the county, could see their tax bills go up. That’s a marked increase from 2010, when 90 percent of the county’s 730,000 parcels yielded lower taxes.

Steele said some owners might be appealing in response to county appraisers raising taxable values on some properties.

In 2009, when real estate prices plummeted en masse, appraisers underestimated the value of many parcels, which then were bumped up late last year, he said. He couldn’t say how many were in that category.

Some people have questioned in online readers’ comments whether county leaders are pressuring the assessor to raise assessed values to generate tax revenue in the budget crisis.

Steele answers with a flat “no.” Staffers in his office handle assessments, not taxes, he said.

“One has nothing to do with the other,” Steele said.

Eighty percent of appeals were settled without the owners going in front of the board. About 65 percent of these owners had their assessed values reduced.

The results were more mixed for the cases that went to the board.

Board members ruled that no change be made on 851 properties. They granted reductions on 1,035 parcels.

The chief tool that owners use to contest their assessed values is to compare their properties with neighboring ones.

That method worked in Martin Suranowitz’s favor. Board members determined that a comparable house near his home sold for $70,000 less than his taxable value of $250,000, and another listed at $25,000 less than his house had hung on the market for months.

They, in turn, shaved $15,000 off his assessment.

“The board was very, very fair,” Suranowitz said.

Comparing houses didn’t go so well for Srilata Rao, whose tony, 15,000-square-foot custom home was far pricier than the neighboring houses in McDonald Highlands in the south valley.

She asked the board to knock down the taxable value to $3.6 million from $4.1 million. Her request was denied.

Millard said appraisers incorrectly compared his 3,800-square-foot house near Buffalo Drive and Windmill Lane to newer homes with more amenities.

BUSINESSES LOST VALUE

The biggest markdown on a nongaming property was $100 million on 5,540 acres of vacant land that the Howard Hughes Corp. owns west of Summerlin. The board knocked down the taxable value to $149 million from $249 million. That translates into a little more than $1 million in taxes saved, unless the land still meets the threshold for the 8 percent tax cap. If the cap still applies, the company would pay 8 percent more than last year’s tax bill.

Large casinos got reductions that added up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

For instance, Mandalay Bay went from $811 million to $703 million and Aria at CityCenter was bumped down to $1.1 billion from $1.8 billion .

With business sites, more factors are considered, such as waning foot traffic, loss of income, increased costs and depreciation of nearby properties.

As predicted, commercial properties depreciated more heavily this year, in large part because of higher vacancy rates.

Even so, Steele said more homeowners filed appeals than businesses, possibly because they were in greater need of relief in the bad economy.

Although this was another record-setting year for appeals, only 1.5 percent of property owners challenged their taxable values, Steele said.

“Relative to other jurisdictions of this size, it’s a low number of appeals,” he said.

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

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