In a move that's likely to be reversed by state officials, Montezuma County commissioners gave across-the-board tax relief to dryland and irrigation farmers this week.
The issue was brought to light during a Board of Equalization hearing on Monday, July 20. Former Montezuma County Commissioner Steve Chappell claimed that the assessed value on 11 of his agricultural parcels nearly doubled over last year.
"To get this increase was shocking," said Chappell, a dryland farmer near Goodman Point.
Chappell complained that the assessed value should be based on actual production and crop prices. Examining his records from 2008 to 2015, Chappell said his fluctuating production numbers and shifting commodity prices didn't correlate with his recent 93 percent tax increase.
"The excuse given by our assessor is that this is a mandate from the state," said Chappell.
Montezuma County Tax Assessor William Davis didn't attend the hearing because of a family emergency, officials said.
Chappell argued that a state mandate couldn't be responsible for his tax increase, adding that the assessed value of his farmland in La Plata County increased by less than 25 percent.
"The assessor is elected by the people of Montezuma County, and if he's not looking out for us, then there needs to be a change," Chappell said.
At the hearing, an official with the tax assessor was unable to adequately explain the tax disparity between Montezuma and La Plata counties.
Requesting individual tax relief, Chappell continued, also speaking on behalf of some half-dozen other farmers in attendance. Chappell said hard-working farmers often didn't pay attention to notices regarding assessed property values, and instead relied on elected officials to protect their interests.
"I don't mind paying my fair share," said Chappell, telling commissioners they shouldn't approve the highest tax increases in history.
Commissioner Keenan Ertel agreed, stating no one should suffer a one-year 93 percent hike in their assessed property value. With the deadline to appeal for tax relief passing on July 15, Ertel suggested that farmers should organize and submit a class-action protest.
"There are a lot of people in your exact situation that didn't have the time, the wherewithal or the knowledge on what to do," Ertel told Chappell. "Now the window has closed."
After further discussion, including unsolicited and informal complaints from other farmers in attendance, commissioners unanimously approved Chappell's request for tax relief, capping his assessed value with a 22 percent increase.
In reaction to broad tax relief, Montezuma County attorney John Baxter cautioned commissioners that any across-the-board decision would likely be reversed at the state level. Substituting in Davis' absence, a county tax official also warned that such a measure could spark additional scrutiny from state auditors.
"It might not be the best strategy to do the whole class," Baxter said.
Still, Commissioner Larry Don Suckla insisted that across-the-board relief should be granted.
"We should send a statement out there," Suckla said. "How do we raise our voices loud enough to let them know in Denver that they aren't treating us fair over here?"
At Suckla's recommendation, Commissioner James Lambert reluctantly made a motion to provide a blanket tax abatement for all dryland and irrigation farmers.
"I think it's an exercise in futility," said Lambert.
Suckla seconded the motion, which mirrored the relief provided to Chappell. Capping the assessment increase at 22 percent for all those that experienced rate spikes of 20 percent or more, the measure was unanimously approved.
"It's the right thing to do," said Ertel.
"If you don't fight them now, then it will be too late," a woman yelled from the audience as the 45-minute hearing drew to a close.
"Have you ever had commissioners lower your taxes?" Suckla asked.
"No," the woman replied.
"Well, there you go," said Suckla.