Many Portland homeowners were shocked last fall when their property tax bills revealed huge increases in how the county set their home values.
Some grew more frustrated when they appealed the new market values to the county Board of Property Tax Appeals.
A Portland Tribune investigation revealed that Multnomah County's appeal process is tilted in favor of the county, and treats taxpayers less fairly than other counties in the area.
Southeast Portland residents Ed and Tereasa Davis bought a houseboat last May for $39,300, and were taken aback by a county tax statement that valued it at $101,310 — as of four months before their purchase. The assessed value, upon which property taxes are based, was set at $100,270.
In advance of their recent hearing at the Board of Property Tax Appeals — known as BOPTA — Tereasa Davis asked the county assessor for the comparable sales he used to determine the houseboat's value. "We didn't get anything," she complained after her brief BOPTA hearing. "He wouldn't let us know what 'comps' he pulled in comparison to ours."
When the Davises did get their 15-minute hearing before three citizen members of their BOPTA panel, no one from the assessor's office was present. So there was nobody to explain the county's higher value determination and what it was based on. The appeal board gave its standard reply: it would get back to them in seven to 10 days with its decision.
BOPTAs in Oregon counties are supposed to be independent citizen panels that weigh the county assessor's evidence against information supplied by property owners, and render an objective decision. But consultants who help people with their appeals say it's rigged in favor of the counties.
"It's the only court where I know you're guilty until you prove yourself innocent," says Steve Anderson, a former member of the Clackamas County BOPTA, who has since represented some 1,000 clients in property tax appeals throughout Oregon.
Critics say Multnomah County's BOPTA process is perhaps the most unfair to taxpayers, often serving as a "rubber stamp" for the assessor.
"I don't believe in Multnomah County that people are getting a fair shake; the assessor controls the whole board," Anderson says.
"It sure seems in Multnomah County like the board is doing the assessor's bidding," concurs Scott Phinney, who formerly ran the appeals section of the Oregon Department of Revenue, and now helps clients with property tax appeals in numerous Oregon counties.
"Multnomah used to be the best county from a taxpayer standpoint," Phinney says, before major changes in the mid-2000s. "I just think they're shortchanging the taxpayer now."
Last year, Marc Peters was one of several dozen people who appealed the hefty value increases County Assessor Randy Walruff imposed after they built accessory dwelling units on their lots. Some assessed values were tripled or quadrupled.
It appeared that the BOPTA members hadn't read his appeal in advance, Peters says, and then issued "blanket" denials of all the appellants, forcing them to invest $252 each in appeals to the state.
"I don't know that they were that independent," Peters says.
New manager in charge
But Walruff retired last July, replaced by his deputy Mike Vaughn.
Vaughn says he's been trying to improve "customer service" in the BOPTA process, and experimented with some changes during this year's round of appeal hearings in February and March. The chief one was posting a representative from his office in some of the BOPTA hearings.
"It wasn't a very good, efficient way of doing things, not having somebody in the room," Vaughn says of past practice. He also requested that appellants get a free one-page summary of the assessor's recommendation when they show up to the hearing. In the past, they had to ask for it, and pay 25 cents a page for the county's report.
Vaughn says he's open to other ideas to improve the process.
Anderson and Phinney praised his recent changes, but they say more is needed.
When motorists contest a routine speeding ticket, the police officer issuing the citation is often dispatched to court to explain what occurred and answer questions from the judge. But in Multnomah County's BOPTA hearings, the appraiser who issued the opinion of value on the property is never there. Vaughn says he considered that but dropped the idea. "It just seemed like it would be a scheduling challenge and there was no real purpose served."
He figured it would suffice to have a rotating representative from his office appear, to cite data from the appraiser's report and share the reasoning behind the decision. But the representatives have only been posted in one of the two hearing rooms used for this year's BOPTA appeals, which explains why none was there for the Davis appeal.
Anderson says he represented clients in 29 Multnomah County BOPTA hearings in March, and nobody from the assessor's office was there.
Every other county where he's represented appellants has an assessor's office representative there, he says. For instance, Washington County's BOPTA hearings include the appraiser who issued the report, he says, and Clackamas County always has an assessor's representative in attendance.
In Multnomah County, you don't get the chance to have a back-and-forth dialogue with the appraiser in front of the board, he says. In other counties you do, enabling them to frame compromise decisions on property values at the hearing. But in Multnomah County, the boards alway say they'll get back to the client, often after consulting the assessor's staff. That gives the assessor more control over the process, Anderson says.
Phinney says it's hard to explain to his clients why the county appraiser who wrote the report isn't at the appeal hearing. "It, to me, really undermines the concept of an independent board holding a hearing," he says. "They're talking to one party without the other party being involved in the process.
"I've never run across that before" in other counties, Phinney says.
Local BOPTA sides with county
Property-tax appeal consultants say the best way to get relief for clients in Multnomah County is to strike a deal with the county appraiser in advance of the hearing. Those deals, called stipulated agreements, occurred in 86 cases this year, or one in six appeals, the same ratio as the prior year.
But if Multnomah County appraisers don't agree to change the property owner's value, the owners are generally out of luck, forced to appeal to the state. "At Multnomah County, the board never finds in favor of the petitioner unless the assessor agrees to it," says Anderson, who's filed an estimated 500 appeals in the county during the past five years. "The assessor controls the whole process."
Phinney says the number of times the Multnomah County BOPTA panels sided with his clients without the assessor's concurrence is "basically zero." In many of those cases, though, he prevails when his client appeals to the state.
Vaughn says he doesn't track the results in other counties, so he can't compare Multnomah County's results to others.
Multnomah County is one of a handful of Oregon counties, along with Lane and Jackson, that charge a fee for filing a property tax appeal, according to Anderson and Phinney.
In other counties, the staff hands the appellant a copy of their report as they walk in the door. Anderson thinks that's unfair, as the county has had the client's report for two months already, and it's hard for him and his clients to fully digest the county report when they only have 10 or 15 minutes for their hearing.
Lisa McClellan, a Northeast Portland resident who recently appeared before Multnomah County's BOPTA, said it was unfair to only receive the county's comparable sales at the start of her hearing. "We didn't get to see the appraiser's report" in advance, she says. "We didn't get to dispute his report."
Anderson praised Vaughn for the new policy of handing clients a one-page summary of the county decision at hearings. However, that policy hasn't been uniformly applied, as in the case of the Davis houseboat appeal.
If the appellants aren't being given the summary, "I will correct that," Vaughn says. He also says he'll look into the possibility of posting the county appraisers' reports on-line, so appellants can read them in advance.
Phinney says other counties allow more time for hearings. "I've never been cut off in another county because of time, but I have in Multnomah."
This year, though, Multnomah County allowed 15 minutes for each hearing, up from 10 minutes last year, which Anderson praised. However, that may be due to the reduced number of appeals filed for this year.
There's no doubt "things have changed for the better" this year, under the new assessor, Anderson says. "I'd say they're getting closer to having parity with other counties."
Vaughn says he'll talk to BOPTA panelists after this year's hearings are over, to get feedback on how the process is working.
A lot of people are confused by Oregon's property tax system, he notes, and BOPTA hearings provide a way to explain them to taxpayers. "I don't know if (the process) is perfect," he says, but he's open to suggestions.
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Appeals to the Multnomah County Board of Property Tax Appeals
Total appeals: 735
Homeowners filing appeals: 516
Cases settled through stipulations, avoiding hearings: 113
Total appeals: 539
Homeowners filing appeals: 317
Cases settled through stipulations, avoiding hearings: 86
Source: Mike Vaughn, county assessor