The first meeting of 2021 for the Dawson County Board of Commissioners on Jan. 15 included welcoming Rod Reynolds as a new member representing District 5. Officers for the new year were also elected, with Bill Stewart being named Chairman and PJ Jacobson Vice Chairman. The majority of the 90 minute meeting however, was spent discussing county property assessments - and in particular, how county assessor John Moore is doing his job.
Ruth Sorensen, Property Tax Administrator with the Property Assessment Division of the Nebraska Department of Revenue, attended the meeting via Zoom. Joining her was Field Operations Manager for that division, Sarah Scott. The women addressed the board with concerns they have about how assessments are being handled in Dawson County after receiving numerous complaints from property owners.
This was not the first time representatives from the state assessor’s office have called Moore’s actions into question. Sorenson said she met with the county board and county assessor in 2018 about some of these same issues. “John did demonstrate sufficient progress in dealing with those concerns for a while, but that has now gone back to the way it was,” said Sorenson. “We need to make sure property owners are being valued equitably. There are sales missing from state sales files, and there are issues that exist with the process of land sales that may affect ag land values in Dawson County.”
Another area of concern Sorenson shared with the board involves building permits and the process being used to assess the construction associated with those permits. “A sufficient number of new construction permits are not being processed and the county is in turn not receiving that revenue,” Sorenson explained. “There were 111 open permits in 2019, so that’s value the county is losing. There is also a significant number of tax corrections coming to the board and I can tell you that is not common. I believe some of these are due to the permits that were not applied. What we’re trying to do here is help the county in assuring they have accurate values and accurate records.”
Sorenson and Scott both shared with the board that the documentation and records keeping within the county assessor’s office is not as it should be. “There is no process or procedure in your office for property owners to know, or for us to know, the process that is being followed,” said Sorenson. “We have received calls from property owners who have sold property and later received the tax statements for that property rather than the new owners. Those kinds of records need to be kept updated.”
One area called into question by the state office is the process being used at the county level to determine qualified sales. Sales are determined to be qualified if the sale price reflects an accurate dollar amount relative to the actual market value of the property. Sales are unqualified if the sale price is not reflective of the market value, involves multiple properties or is between family members.
Scott explained that the qualification of sales is the county assessor’s decision. “We do review those - what we are speaking to here is not the percentage of sales but rather the quality of reviews and the documentation to support those decisions,” said Scott. “We need to be as accurate as possible and as transparent as possible.”
When asked why certain sales were disqualified Moore said he did not have that information in front of him. “That was my decision and I will live with that decision,” he said in reference to his method of qualification. “I don’t know that it would make that much difference in the long run. There are good sales out there.”
Sorenson told the board that what it all comes down to is a lack of consistency. “We do not have a consistent process in Dawson County.”
Ken Christensen of Gothenburg was present at the meeting and shared some thoughts with the board as well. “I have filed four complaints with Ruth (Sorensen) and have had 12 properties messed up. I feel there is definitely a problem,” said Christensen.
Sorenson spoke to Christensen’s remarks. “I agree that we need to look at a complete overhaul in that office. I will put together a report to the board of our findings that will include some corrective measures, and then we can discuss this matter again.”
She also reminded the board that the county assessor is elected, so there really is not a lot the commissioners can do. What they can do is provide resources and maintain communication with the state office. Sorenson also said the state offers some good resources for training and education, and she encouraged Moore to utilize those.