The Santa Fe County Assessor's Office closed at noon on Good Friday, but even a shortened schedule and the beginning of Easter weekend didn't stop the steady stream of disgruntled property owners filling the office's lobby.
Almost without exception, they were incensed at the assessor's office for assessing their lands and houses at ever-higher values. It seems counterintuitive. Santa Fe's real estate market is hardly booming: According to the Santa Fe Association of Realtors, home sales are down, and the average time a home spends on the market is up.
The emotions ranged from shock and anger to frustration and confusion—but for Lola Moonfrog, this year's round of valuations is just another bout in a half-decade battle with the assessor's office.
In 1990, Moonfrog bought 10 acres of wooded property on the northeastern edge of Santa Fe, across from Ten Thousand Waves on Hyde Park Road.
Until recently, Moonfrog lived in a house there, built before the county passed its ordinance banning the construction of homes on steep hillsides.
In 1991—the oldest records available on the assessor's office computer system—the five acres of land under Moonfrog's house were valued at $50,000 all together. Moonfrog bought the land as a single 10-acre parcel, but it was later split into two five-acre tracts. Records for the other five acres don't show up until 2003, when their total value is listed as $125,000—21/2 times the amount of the adjacent parcel underneath Moonfrog's house.
Moonfrog says she didn’t notice the disparity until after 2004, when the value of the vacant parcel suddenly skyrocketed, increasing from $125,000 to $375,000 in a single year.
"There's no way it should be valued that way because it's a lot of hardscrabble rock and thick forest, and no good place to build a house," Moonfrog tells SFR.
So with the help of real estate lawyer Walter Schliemann, Moonfrog began what would turn into years of protests against the assessor's office.
"I wasn't trying to get special favors," Moonfrog says. "I was trying to get something that was in line with the other [land] around there and that was reasonable according to what that land is like."
SFR examined hundreds of current and historic property valuation records and real estate listings for this story, selecting three neighborhoods to serve as case studies. In Moonfrog's Hyde Park neighborhood, values of comparable properties vary widely, ranging from less than $100,000 to more than half a million. In many cases, they're lower than current real estate listings—and many haven't been adjusted since the 1990s.
Other neighborhoods have seen steady increases in valuation—at least since 2008. Along Jemez Road, which connects Agua Fria Street to Airport Road in the southwestern part of the city, much cheaper houses on much smaller lots have seen their property values increase, almost without exception, by 3 percent each year—the maximum allowable amount, according to a 2001 state law.
In one extreme case, a 7.4-acre tract of land near Moonfrog's property in Hyde Park is valued at just $74,060—the same as it was worth in 1991. That's less than a half-acre of vacant land on Jemez Road, which goes for $80,000.
"Property tax values seem to be all over the place," SFAR President JoAnne Vigil Coppler tells SFR. Coppler says she receives complaints from first-time homeowners who bought property before the housing market crashed.
In some cases, Coppler says, "The valuations sometimes exceed what they paid, so their taxes are too high."
Coppler says that, in part, the inequity occurs because the assessor’s office is struggling to keep up with changes in the housing market. Last June, when SFR
on the unexplained jump in affordable housing valuations around the city, Santa Fe County Assessor Domingo Martinez explained that the transition to a new computer system limited his ability to accurately update existing valuations and move new properties onto the tax rolls.
But nine months later, only 25 to 30 percent of the county's approximately 40,000 residential properties have been added to the new system, according to Chief Deputy Assessor Gary Pérez.
"We're still not up to speed; we're still trying," Pérez, who came to the Santa Fe office from Doña Ana County this January, admits.
But when inaccuracies exist—or persist—the burden of proof lies with the property owner.
"Under the law, the assessor is deemed to be correct, and it's up to the landowner to prove otherwise," Schliemann explains.
Does that mean people at the higher end of the housing market are more able—and consequently more likely—to protest?
"I would say yes," Pérez admits.
By at least one measure, he's right.
Of the approximately 2,512 total protests the assessor's office received in 2010, only 132 went to formal hearings. Most of those have been decided, and most were decided in favor of the county assessor. A list of the 126 resolved cases puts their average pre-protest value at more than $616,500—more than four times the US Census Bureau estimate for Santa Fe County's median home value of $150,500.
But Moonfrog's beef is not with paying taxes.
"I don't object to property taxes, and I don't protest people who have more resources paying more," Moonfrog says. But, she adds, "I don't agree with people being treated unequally. Why am I the only one who's getting [a property value] raised? Why aren't the other property lots that are adjacent in that area getting adjusted? That doesn't make any sense."
Pérez says one major contributor to unequal property values is the 2001 law limiting property valuation increases to 3 percent each year. (When a piece of property sells, its value is readjusted to reflect its real market value, often resulting in the large jump in valuation known as "tax lightning.")
"It's created many inequities," Pérez says of the law. "In a subdivision of 100 houses, you have 100 same houses—they might just be a different color paint—and you're going to have probably 100 different values on our books for those houses because of the time that they bought and sold those houses during this whole 10-year period."
In part, he says, this is why property values rise even as the housing market continues to decline: If people have stayed in the same house since 2001, their property values have only ever risen by 3 percent each year. A bill aimed at correcting that law by allowing more properties to come to "current and correct" values failed in the final moments of the 2011 legislative session.
Still, the 3 percent law doesn't explain why some property values on Jemez Road have increased steadily since 2008—or why Moonfrog's property value has increased while some of her neighbors' have remained static since 1992.
Nor does it mitigate the ultimate result of unequal valuations: unequal taxation.
"It's just really unfair," Schliemann says. "The lower-income people are being taxed higher than Hyde Park."
The deadline to protest property valuation is May 16; Pérez says his office has already received 105 protests this year.