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Assessor invites state to attend forum, then changes mind

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By David Giuliani

Mora County Assessor Angela Romero earlier this week invited state property tax officials to a public forum about the state’s enforcement of tax rates.

On Wednesday, she pulled the invitation.

“Your presence at this forum is no longer necessary. Thank you for your consideration in attending this forum,” she wrote in a letter to Rick Silva, the director of the state Property Tax Division.

In an interview, she said she sent the letter on the advice of state Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, who represents Mora County. She said Griego is working to resolve the matter and that if the state officials had attended the forum, it may have resulted in a “shouting match.”

Griego said he planned to meet next week with Jan Goodwin, the secretary of the state Taxation and Revenue Department. Her department oversees the Property Tax Division.

At issue is a state effort to correct a problem in which properties are inappropriately classified for grazing, which makes them eligible for a lower tax rate. In Mora County, any property under 47 acres is ineligible for the lower taxes.

However, Mora County officials say many families have divided up their land over the generations. Individual plots are less than 47 acres, but the cattle graze through a family’s entire area, which is much larger than 47 acres, they say.

Griego said he understands what the law calls for, but he questions why the state is “picking” on Mora County.

“The statute hasn’t been enforced in how long. You can’t just come in one day and raise people’s taxes 400 percent. We want to resolve the problem,” the senator said. “This is a problem that will affect all 33 counties.”

He said the state has a due process formula that must be followed.

“What I’m trying to do is stop this in its tracks and come up with a solution,” he said. “I don’t care whether the taxes go up or down; they have to give notification to the taxpayer.”

Griego said he feared that because Mora County is one of the poorest counties in the state, many people may lose their properties in a tax auction.

“You’ll get a lot of outsider people once these properties go up for tax sale, and they’ll run the locals out,” the senator said.

As for Thursday’s forum, Griego acknowledged that he advised Romero to tell the state officials that their presence wasn’t necessary.

“The assessor is the person the people need to have contact with,” he said, adding that a cooling-off period was needed.

Silva of the Property Tax Division said his agency was enforcing the grazing tax rate in all 33 counties. He said San Miguel County was one of the counties where he has asked the assessor to apply the proper tax rates. However, San Miguel County Assessor Elaine Estrada has asked for a written directive, which the state has yet to do.

On Monday, three members of the Property Tax Division showed up at the Mora County assessor’s office in response to a request for help. However, Romero told the three to stop what they were doing when she found out they were changing property values. They left shortly afterward.

Romero said she had asked for help to determine the tax status of vacant lands, not change values.

“We went into Mora County because they didn’t have the resources,” said Michael O’Melia, the division’s deputy director.

State Property Tax Division officials said they would determine their next step after Griego’s meeting with Goodwin next week.