The Democratic nomination for Santa Fe County assessor is up for grabs. Three veterans of county and state government will compete in the June 1 primary election for the privilege of putting taxable values on every square foot of county property. Since these are men who know their real estate, SFR chose to present them as the stars of our local-politics version of MTV’s “Cribs,” by visiting their homes.
We also asked them about real issues, such as the 3 percent limit on property tax hikes that candidate and former Assessor Benito Martinez Jr. says is keeping property taxes "artificially low;" how much their cribs are worth; and what changes they'd make if elected. Below are the candidates' thoughts, essential specs and video tours of their homes.
Occupation: broker with Santa Fe Realty Partners
Status: leasing in Santa Fe; owns land in Tesuque
2417 Camino del Oso
Square feet: 4,000
Duran estimates the property value at: $900,000
Official property value according to county assessor’s website: $146,600
Property tax paid in 2009: $880.77, by previous owner
Style: traditional Santa Fe (ponderous vigas, peach-colored adobe) meets mountain hideaway (sweeping vistas, an enormous deck)
Campaign tale: A two-term county commissioner and veteran real estate broker, Duran says being part of New Mexico’s political scene “gets in your blood.”
Duran estimates that approximately 15 percent of Santa Fe County properties are undervalued. As a real estate broker, he says, “I’ve come across thousands of properties that haven’t been assessed or have been assessed improperly. Now that values are declining, it’s only fair that assessments be adjusted to take that into account. I would try to bring those properties that haven’t been contributing properly to our tax burden into compliance.”
But Duran says a lightning tax like Bernalillo County’s, which updates a property’s tax value when it changes ownership, isn’t the way to go. Instead, he says, values should be updated incrementally, with work-trade programs for people who can’t afford to pay their updated taxes.
Parting shot: “When I was county commissioner, we put a lot of money into the Geographic Information System—and it’s still not available to the public. The future of our county is tied to our ability to [use GIS]. My job as a county assessor is to use my experience, my knowledge of property values [and] my ability to build consensus to bring to the forefront these innovative technical applications. You have to have a passion for it.”
Benito Martinez Jr.
Occupation: self-employed craftsman (and former exempt employee at the state Regulation and Licensing Department; laid off in January 2010)
Status: owns his house
1521 Kachina Ridge Drive
Square feet: 1,350
Martinez estimates the property value at: $210,000
Official property value according to county assessor’s website: $173,022
Property tax paid in 2009: $1,131.50
Style: contemporary Santa Fe (brightly painted walls, modern appliances) meets old New Mexico’s ornate crucifixes, wood-burning stoves, hand-crafted wooden benches and black-and-white family photos
Campaign tale: At 8 am on Good Friday, Martinez’ kitchen is filled with the aroma of frying bacon and green chile. His buddies-turned-campaigners, former County Surveyor Allen Grace and Gibo Baca (of Baca & Marino Real Estate), scurry around the stove, boiling water for coffee, scrambling eggs and heating homemade tortillas on the wood stove. Martinez, who served as Santa Fe county assessor from 1997-2006, says he’d like to see more “boots on the ground” doing physical appraisals of county property.
“Besides doing the best I can to try to obtain equity and proper processes in the Assessor’s Office, my primary goal is to assist taxpayers in Santa Fe County in understanding the system,” Martinez says. He also wants to bring county properties into compliance, but not without a yet-to-be-defined safety net to protect low-income homeowners from sudden property tax hikes.
Parting shot: “What the majority of taxpayers that have approached me have asked is, ‘How in the world can my property value be decreasing and my taxes be increasing?’ Some of the values in Santa Fe County have been artificially kept low because of the 3 percent [property tax hike] limitation.”
Domingo P Martinez
Occupation: Santa Fe County assessor
Status: living with his brother in his late parents’ home
913 Don Juan St.
Square feet: 1,260
Martinez estimates the property value at: $184,210
Official property value according to county assessor’s website: $184,210
Property tax paid in 2009: N/A (According to Martinez, his father, a disabled veteran, was exempt from paying property taxes in 2009.) In 2008, Martinez’ parents paid $749.71.
Style: utilitarian adobe
Campaign tale: Martinez’ home, where his late parents lived, is a modest adobe near downtown; he asked that SFR not show the interior because of break-in problems in the neighborhood. At a small table squeezed in front of a washer and dryer, Martinez expounds on the duties of a county assessor, while an over-friendly calico cat plots ways to climb onto his shoulders.
Martinez’ main proposal is to suspend the 3 percent cap on property tax hikes for one year in order to bring all undervalued properties up to their “current and correct” values. Over the same period, Martinez says he would freeze property tax revenues for the county, area schools and other public entities as a cushion against over-budgeting or taxing residents too suddenly.
His over-arching goal, Martinez says, is to “continue the work we’ve been doing” and to add a few internal controls to make sure county employees aren’t skewing property values to help out friends or relatives.
Parting shot: “I inherited an office that was behind the times,” Martinez, whose term followed Benito Martinez’, says. “There’s a lot of homes that have not been appraised. We instituted a brand-new computer system that’s been helpful, but now we’ve got to get out into the field and re-appraise everything.”