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County Assessors and Tax Hearing Officer Dispute Property Assessment

September 24, 2003
By: Thomas Warren
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - At a time when revenue and budget cuts are the subject of intense debate throughout Missouri, one Columbian has sparked a statewide tax controversy all his own.

W.B. "Bart" Tichenor, chief hearing officer of the state Tax Commission, has ruffled the feathers of county assessors throughout the state by ruling against them in 45 straight cases. The rulings involved appeals by Missouri businesses that contended their property was overvalued by assessors and therefore subject to undue taxes.

"I adamently disagree with his rulings," said Jefferson County Assessor Randy Holman.

Tichenor responds to critics that he is simply ruling on the evidence before him.

There have been no personal property appeals in Boone County.

Much of the conflict involves fundamentally different methods by which personal property is valued. Many county assessors use the cost approach, which values property by estimating the cost of replacing it with a depreciation applied for the age of the property.

But Tichenor consistently has ruled in favor of businesses using private appraisers, who value property based on market prices of comparable property -- known as the market approach.

Assessors say the cost approach is more efficient because it allows them to uniformly value large pieces of industrial machinery. Assessors are unable to closely examine the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of pieces of equipment they appraise.

"It is mass appraisal," said Scott Shipman, St. Charles County Assessor. "Unfortunately, there are not the resources moneywise or on staff," for more detailed evaluation.

Tichenor said depreciation formulas do not reflect the actual value of personal property because they are too general and do not devalue property below 30 percent of the original cost. He says the preferable method is the market approach, which relies on business transactions such as auctions to determine value.

"The market does not support the arbitrary depreciation schedule," Tichenor said. "The only way to build an accurate depreciation schedule is to go to the market."

Holman responds that market value is an inaccurate indicator of property value.

"There's not a market for this type of equipment," Holman said. "About the only way you can value this property is by using the cost approach less depreciation."

Boone County Assessor Tom Schauwecker concurs that "what something costs and what it's worth may be two different numbers."

Tichenor maintains he is ruling in favor of superior evidence. He said that while businesses appeal to him with reports from certified appraisers detailing each piece of equipment in question, assessors defend lump sum figures multiplied by the depreciation figure.

"That's a joke," Holman said. "It's pretty clear that his mind is made up before he's heard the case."

Assessors are also unable to get all the information they seek, Shipman said. That is not the case for private appraisers.

Property taxes provide a vital source of revenue for local governments, states the Missouri Tax Commission web site. More than 2,500 local governments in Missouri received about $3.9 million in property taxes in 2000.

As a result of Tichenor's rulings devaluing personal property, local governments are losing their share of the taxes that would have been paid, said Stan Piekarski, chief deputy in the St. Louis license collector's office. "Tax revenues are being drastically decreased," he said. "And the lion's share of property tax revenues go to schools."

Local governments have two options, Piekarski said. They can raise their tax rate, unless it is maxxed out, or restrict budgets, which results in layoffs.

It does not appear that Tichenor will change his approach to hearings.

"The law is the law," he said.

But if they had the choice, Holman said, assessors would go before another court officer and Tichenor would be out of work.

"In a normal court of law, most people get to disqualify the judge assigned to them," he said. "We don't have that."