A $20,000 View

By , April 19, 2013

It’s probably obvious that we really, really love our view. I wish I could take photos that show the magnification you would see if you were here. The mountains usually appear half again to twice as tall as our photos show.

I’d hesitate to try to place a value on this panorama, but we’ve recently learned that others are not so reluctant. According to the latest borough property tax assessment, our view is worth $20,000.

The assessor's price tag for this view: $20,000 (Photo: Mark Zeiger).

The assessor’s price tag for this view: $20,000 (Photo: Mark Zeiger).

We accept paying property taxes as our responsibility. We benefit from many services paid for through tax dollars; those services we don’t benefit from support our friends, neighbors, and visitors to our community. We’re taxed at a somewhat lower rate because of our location; we are beyond the help of the fire department, for instance.

However, we trust that the taxation will be based on a fair and accurate estimate of our property’s worth. Haines’s latest assessment is a huge mess, and has become the proverbial “talk of the town.” Haines Borough (Alaska’s boroughs are like your counties or parishes) has no full time tax assessor, so we’ve had to rely on a seemingly endless string of short-term hires and contractors. This isn’t surprising; I doubt any small town assessor has an easy time of it, but here in Haines, the phrase “hell hath no fury” springs to mind whenever property tax comes up in conversation.

This year, the contractor hired to assess our properties proved unreliable, and the borough called in a replacement at the last minute. The resulting assessments jumped significantly for most landholders, from unpleasant to astronomical. Some people are reporting increases of 800%!

Now, in fairness, it must be said that we were due for an upward adjustment in assessments. We’ve been getting by on low, old assessments for years due to the practical restraints mentioned above. But, a fair adjustment requires comprehensive site inspections, similar to the one that occurred about 5 years ago. Instead, we got formulas, generalities, and guesswork.

The borough assessor explained his methodology to the local news, saying, among other things, that he added $20,000 to all developed lots, assuming that each one had a building pad, road access, sewer, water, and utilities: electricity and telephone. That applies to some Haines area homes, but hardly all.

We didn’t do too badly in the assessment. Ours rose about 30%—chump change compared to some. Significantly, the assessed value has now risen to a bit above what we paid for it, so we should be happy with that.

Our figure included half of the amount above, which doesn’t quite pencil out. If those five elements add $20,000, we have two of the five at best. Our catchment system counts as running water. Our self-generated electricity and intermittent cell coverage don’t count as utilities. If the uneven, stump-riddled ground underneath our piling-supported cabin would be considered a “pad” by any contractor sent to rebuild on it, then we do have one. Two out of five would be $8,0000. But hey, why not just go ahead and round ‘er on up to $10,000? That’s fair, isn’t it? Easy, too!

Worse, he assessed our property at more per acre than some, because we have waterfront. He assumes that we could subdivide and get his figure per acre because of of ocean view.

I want to invite the assessor out to have a look; I’ll need to guide him in, of course. Rather than taking the trail that skirts our land, I’d take him across the property, so he can enjoy the ocean view as he traverses our pie-shaped parcel. I expect he’ll especially enjoy ascending and descending our slopes. I hope he has a good sense of balance.

Lastly, there’s the ocean view itself, assessed at $20,000. I can’t really argue with that one, unless I were to say what I really think: that, at least, is undervalued.

2 Responses to “A $20,000 View”

  1. Astrid says:

    We once lived in a town (we moved a lot) where they said, taxes would be calculated differently, and it would go down, made everybody happy.
    Then the taxletters came..and everybody had a huge increase of their taxes.
    What was the trick? well they changed their calculations from livable sq footage, to re sell value.
    What in a province as Alberta, with houseprices at that time rising like crazy, made quite a bit of money to that town.
    (we moved to Saskatchewan lol)

  2. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Astrid, I understand the need to experiment with revenue bases. I’d do it too, if I could. What I don’t understand is the common mistake of making broad announcements about the tax rates going down as a result. That just seems to cause trouble.

    We’re being told that the mil rate will likely be reduced to counterbalance the new assessments. Our mayor lives similar to we do, kind of half way between a “normal” on the grid home, and our place. She’s very upset about her assessment going up, so she’ll likely work toward lowering the mil rate. On the other hand, the borough needs revenue these days! So, It’ll be interesting to see.

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