By BRENDA JOSEPHSON
The Haines Borough Assembly voted unanimously to not renew an agreement for services with the community’s property tax assessor.
The Assembly’s action was in response to months of public outcry and a citizens’ petition requesting the contract cancellation. The petition quickly gained bipartisan support and signatures from residents throughout the borough’s communities.
In the apology, the newly elected mayor acknowledged process failings: “We are sorry for the upset this has caused for not fully anticipating the problems that arose this year and for the time it took the government to fully understand and appreciate the concern of taxpayers. We are working as fast as we can to fix the property tax assessment system and make it right for both the Haines Borough and property tax payers.”
Previously employed by the City and Borough of Juneau, contract assessor Michael Dahle arrived in Haines a year ago to implement the first phase of a new mass-appraisal methodology for the Borough’s 2023 property tax assessments.
Dahle found notoriety in Haines after an assessment on an appeal increased from $864,400 to $1.1 million for a modest property in the Haines Mosquito Lake area — property that was appraised at $620,000.
Research into Dahle’s credentials resulted in the discovery that the contract assessor holds neither an assessor’s certification with Alaska Association of Assessing Officers nor is he licensed as an appraiser. The lack of professional credentials was the basis of the petition to not renew Dahle’s contract when it expires on Dec. 31.
Haines resident Paul Rogers submitted a Citizen’s Agenda Request for Assembly Action requesting the cancellation of Dahle’s contract for assessment services. Roger’s request was supported with nearly 600 signatures on a petition in a borough with a population of 2,000 residents. The petition acknowledged the fact that currently there are no requirements for a contract assessor to maintain credentials but encouraged the Haines Borough to follow the examples of other municipalities in the State of Alaska that require a minimum of a level three certification with Alaska Association of Assessing Officers and hold an Alaska appraiser license.
Assembly member Craig Loomis made a motion to not renew Dahle’s contract upon its expiration in December stating “Almost 600 people signed…Let’s move on and hand the public what they want.”
Assembly member Natalie Dawson supported the motion, arguing that “Sometimes you got to cut your losses when it comes to whether you have any public trust left in a process…I feel like this petition illustrates a large number of people that are telling us they don’t feel comfortable with moving forward under the current process and status quo.”
During discussion on the motion to terminate the contract, Assembly member Kevin Forster addressed his concerns about community frustration and anger due to a lack of effective communication with the public.
“It felt like we were adversaries. It occurs to me that whoever is in that role, in any of these roles, has to be beholden to policy that protects us from this and it can’t be personalities are allowed to come in and create this type of turmoil. Which makes me feel like this is a way bigger issue than a single person,” Forster said.
The local government voted unanimously in support of Paul Roger’s request for assembly action.
“The Haines Borough Assembly heard its citizens call for reform and action to fix a failed property tax assessment system. A few citizens worked tirelessly to convince the assembly to establish an ad hoc committee to review and recommend changes to the assessment process. They also convinced the assembly to end the contract with an unlicensed, uncertified out-of-control assessor,” Rogers commented after passage of the motion.
Haines appellant Kim Rosado was pleased with the response of the Assembly: “I am, for the first time in six months, feeling relieved. The Property Tax Assessment Ad Hoc Committee needs to make sure this never happens again, and hopefully they can start with a rollback to undo the wrong,”
Gratitude for the Assembly’s action and need for codified protections was a consistent message from those that worked to bring awareness of process failures and punitive actions from the assessor’s office.
“We’re pleased with the outcome, but the culture of inept government that allowed this to occur in the first place still exists. It’s like a tumor has been removed but it will return unless we get the ‘whole body’ well, holistically,” said Dr. Mark Smith.
Juneau experienced similar turmoil during Dahle’s tenure with CBJ’s Assessor’s Office. Juneau commercial properties in 2021 received assessment increases of 150% across the board, regardless of the area they were in and without respect to how Covid-19 shutdowns affected different segments of the economy.
The issues the Juneau property owners faced mirrored the issues Haines experienced with the use of a mass appraisal methodology that uses an “exotic hybrid cost approach” with some market data that ignores actual market sales conditions, resulting in inflated assessment values in excess of full and true value. Juneau appellants also expressed frustration with the assessor’s adversarial approach toward property owners.
Upon hearing the developments from Haines Borough’s positive steps to regain public trust in the assessment process, Juneau resident Dave Hanna applauded the action of the local government “for showing courage and character to do the right thing and admit that mistakes were made, and corrections are needed. A rare occurrence in today’s world.”
Juneau property owner Greg Adler also provided encouragement to the Haines community stating “Plaudits to Haines for protecting their city! Juneau did not organize as well as Haines, but the damage to public confidence from Dahle’s rigged mass appraisal technique, not pegged to fair market value, was just as palpable. It is time for Juneau to right the wrongs and make a Decline in Value process available.”
The property tax assessment that occurred in Haines this year was due to inherent flaws that were exploited in Alaska’s property tax assessment process as detailed in Must Read Alaska earlier this season in Haines, there ought to be a law. Statewide policies and statutes must be written to guide and protect the public process for property tax assessment public process.
Haines resident Brenda Josephson is licensed by the State of Alaska for real estate sales. She also is a federally licensed tax professional authorized by the US Department of Treasury to practice as an Enrolled Agent before the Internal Revenue Service.