Two-hour event Thursday evening included numerous guest speakers from a variety of viewpoints as well as audience Q&A session

During the past year, community members and business owners have raised concerns about recently enacted tax assessment policies that include more onsite inspections.

The Crook County Assessor has initiated a program in which appraisers visit businesses to inventory taxable personal property, including office furniture and décor. The office also sent notification to rural residences announcing in-home inspections for assessing property value.

Having heard numerous stories and complaints from residents and business owners alike, and having seen much of the issue detailed in the local newspaper, the Central Oregon Patriots elected to host an informational forum on property tax assessment. The group hoped to provide information on what assessor’s office appraisers are allowed to do to value property and what rights home and business owners have if they want to deny the appraisers access.

“This is a pretty hot topic right now,” said COP Chair Craig Brookhart as he opened the forum. “Since we have been planning this forum, it seems like everyone has a story.”

Brookhart gave the list of the speakers and explained the format to the approximately 150 people who attended the event at Carey Foster Hall on Thursday evening, then went on to assure visitors that the event would not harbor any particular bias.

“What we are trying to do is facilitate discussion and education and inform the public,” he said. “If you get one thing out of this tonight, you should come away knowing what your rights are.”

The list of speakers included Casey Kaiser, executive director for the Prineville-Crook County Chamber of Commerce, County Commissioner Seth Crawford, County Sheriff Jim Hensley, and Bend-area attorney Rachel Harbison, whom the Patriots called upon to explain the legal aspects of property tax assessment. Crook County Assessor Brian Huber was invited to attend, but after initially agreeing to participate, withdrew from the event.

Kaiser took the floor first, and after commending the large citizen turnout, went on to talk about the concerns raised by Chamber members about the business inspection program.

“For us, as an organization, we saw potentially a direct impact to our businesses, to our members that we try to support,” he said. “We want to ensure that we are seeing fair and equitable taxation across all of our types of businesses.”

Crawford, who spoke next, echoed Kaiser’s concerns, stressing that Crook County must create a business-friendly environment. He went on to note that after he had received calls from concerned business owners, he and other county officials met with Huber and learned that because the assessor is an elected official, he is not accountable to the Crook County Court, but rather the citizenry who elected him.

“It is unfortunate because, to me, we need to have the least amount of regulation as possible in our community,” Crawford said. “As a local assessor, he needs to have the ability to, within the letter of the law, be as business friendly and friendly to the citizens of the county as possible – and I don’t see that happening.”

Harbison followed, and spent considerable time explaining the role of the assessor and what is required of position by statute. She detailed what types of property the assessor is required to value, from homes and businesses to their associated fixtures and equipment.

“Each county appraiser for the Department of Revenue must appraise all property within the county at 100 percent of its real market value,” she said. “Oregon defines that as the amount in cash that would reasonably be expected to be paid by an informed buyer to an informed seller.”

The attorney went on to stress that the assessor is required to assess property as accurately as possible.

“If he fails to do that, he could face criminal penalties or lose his position as assessor,” Harbison said.

She went on to note that state statute allows a variety of methods for assessors to employ when determining property value, but the most accurate option remains physical inspections.

“There was a time when physical onsite inspections were mandatory,” she said. “They are no longer mandatory, but I would say they are useful.”

Harbison went on to tell the audience what rights they have if an appraiser is requesting access to their home or place of business.

“You do not need to let them in,” she said, although she cautioned that barring access might result in a less accurate property assessment.

She went on to address people whose property include gates or “no trespassing” signage, noting that no law prevents an assessor from entering such properties to knock on the door and request entrance to a home.

Historically, Crook County appraisers have entered such properties, however Harbison announced that Huber had recently revised that policy. Citing a newsletter distributed by the assessor’s office, she told the audience that inspectors will now leave a card requesting an appointment if they encounter a “keep out” or “no trespassing” sign.

The forum included a large portion devoted to audience questions, and Brookhart led off by asking why an appraiser would need to enter a person’s home, a question later echoed by another member of the audience.

In response, Harbison quoted the same assessor’s office newsletter.

“The interior inspection should be conducted whenever possible,” she said, adding that it provides details about room inventory, layout, functional utility, and quality of materials and construction.

Other questions went unanswered, such as what qualifications are required of an assessor’s office appraiser and whether or not the assessor’s office is overstaffed for size of the county.

Regarding business inspections, Harbison explained that personal property, which includes anything that enhances or promotes a business, is subject to assessment for taxation, even taxidermy.

Mid Oregon Personnel owner Greg Lambert spoke to the audience, recounting his experiences with the inspection process, which resulted in some questionable valuations and other mistakes brought on by a computer glitch.

“My professional career has been devoted to helping people find jobs so they can take care of themselves,” he said. “You can’t find jobs to take care of yourself when the businesses are harassed out of business.”

Lambert, who displays taxidermy at his business, addressed that aspect of the personal property provision as did Jordan Simmons of Simmons Realty, another company that prominently displays animal mounts.

Both business owners stressed that because it violates Oregon law to sell taxidermy to another person, it cannot be assessed for tax purposes. Simmons told the audience that he recently sent a letter to the county assessor pointing out that fact and seemingly got a favorable response.

“I have forwarded the information to our county legal counsel and the (Oregon) Department of Justice for legal advice concerning this matter,” Simmons said, quoting Huber’s response. “I have also forwarded the information to the Oregon Department of Revenue as this may have a statewide effect on the valuation of personal property.”

Brookhart said on more than one occasion that he personally learned a lot from the information provided at the forum and as the forum concluded, urged people to remain involved.

“If you have an opinion on where this has to go next, what you like us do on your behalf, please let us know,” he said. “I can already see a change in policy in the tax assessor’s office because of the community involvement, so this has been very beneficial from that point of view.”