County Tax Assessor Jim Kolen told county commissioners last week the needs at least two more employees to catch up with years of assessments his office has been unable to address due to short-staffing.

His office is currently assessing properties every 18 years, and he’d prefer that to be every six or seven years.

And, he noted, there are numerous residences throughout the county whose owners have built without permits, resulting in lost property tax revenue to the cash-strapped county.

Curry County assesses $0.599 per $1,000 assessed valuation in property taxes — the lowest in the state — which brought $1.82 million to county coffers last fiscal year. City residents pay an average of $8.82 per $1,000 assessed valuation for additional services.

Of the $28 million paid in taxes that are passed through the county to 47 special taxing districts such as schools, libraries and ports, Curry County sees 6 percent of that money.

In 2018-19, Curry County properties had a collective assessed value of $22.5 million on market values of $33 million. The 1,150 properties slated for new construction, Kolen said, would bring $13,500 to the county in property taxes.

“It takes an awful lot of new construction to raise money for the county itself,” he said.

He added state programs that allow seniors and disabled residents to defer property taxes until they sell their home, and another that exempts $26,400 in valuations for veterans with disabilities, further straps county coffers. Taxpayers also can pay 3 percent less on their taxes if they pay them in full when first due at the end of the calendar year.

“I will tell you my intention is to ask for 2.5 more employees and funding for the assessing and taxation software,” Kolen said.

Those people are needed to ensure homebuilders obtain the proper permits for new construction and get those properties on the tax rolls.

“Building permits are our chief discovery tool,” Kolen said of how his office knows there is new property to assess and add to the rolls. “If it doesn’t get permited, our discovery tool is someone telling us.”

It happens more often than one might think, he noted. Kolen showed photos of simple houses for which owners obtained permits — but later converted into extravagant homes whose improvements were not permitted nor discovered until assessors made their rounds years later.

One example he showed — a simple “agricultural” construction that looked like horse stables — was transformed into a ranch-style home with a two-car garage in the rear, expansive deck and a second story.

All the taxing districts lost out on $7,037 in property tax revenue because the improvements were not noted on the tax rolls; the county could have received $462 in property taxes, Kolen said.

For homes that were built more than five years ago and for which the county must forego, those losses add up. In the period from 2012-16, he estimates there was $14.48 million in assessed valuation that was missed, meaning that, using the average county tax rate, schools lost out on $73,200, other districts $46,500 and the county $8,300.

“We don’t find this unless we’re going door to door,” Kolen said. “We’ve got to put boots on the ground for this. If we project it out based on the percentage of new construction we’re finding, we could find as much as $800,000 in taxes.”

The county share of that would be a mere $52,000.

Revenue options

Currently, there are two bills in the state legislature that specifically address the problems Curry County faces, Kolen said.

House Bill 2104 would provide funds for the property tax division of Oregon Department of Revenue and all assessor’s officers to improve assessment and taxation functions, Kolen said. It also would fund some counties, like Curry, that lack enough resources to fund themselves.

House Bill 2383 — called the Curry Pilot Project and supported by State Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford — would provide $125,000 a year to Curry County assessor’s office to help with assessment work that has fallen so far behind over the years.

The potential return after six years could bring Curry County schools and other districts an additional $600,000 to $700,000 per year, based on Kolen’s estimates.

Commissioner Sue Gold wondered if some of the special districts, notably libraries in the county, could be consolidated to reduce the number of districts and save money.

“I see the (revenue allocation) as a pie, and the pie is out of whack,” she said. She cited the Chetco Community Public Library in Brookings that established a tax rate that garners it $786,000 a year — a figure that was needed when the facility was built, but was never sunsetted.

“When they formed, they probably needed that, and they have millions in endowments,” she said. “But it makes no sense (now).”

Consolidation would require voters in each district to approve such a merger and agree on a new tax rate for one new district.

“It can work,” Kolen said, “but what tax rate would the people settle on (countywide)? Some people’s tax rate would go up, some people’s tax rate would go down. There’s a hill to climb there.”

Curry County, too, does not assess the taxing districts a fee to process the tax revenue for special districts that passes through the county tax office — another issue that has been discussed in recent years.