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Residents seek information on how to challenge property tax assessments

by Bruce Checefsky

(January 2019, Plain Press)           Jordan Perme and Chris Lees bought a one-family home on Literary Road in Tremont five and a half years ago. Their property tax assessment increased 17% over the next four years. This year alone, it increased more than 25%.

“I don’t think they did a thorough job with assessing the value,” said Lees. “Our house is much smaller than all the other houses on our block, yet they valued ours a lot higher. The square foot assessment was higher than any other house on our block.”

“Our house is builder grade,” Perme added. “We’ve painted but everything is pretty much original. I doubt we can’t sell our house for what they set its value at.”

Home owners like Perme and Lees from Ohio City and Tremont, and as far away as Rocky River, flooded Franklin Circle Church for a December 13thmeeting on recent tax evaluations conducted by Citizens United For Fairness. Staff members from Cuyahoga County were on hand to explain how to challenge property tax assessments before the Cuyahoga County Board of Revision.

The meeting was contentious, with Cuyahoga County Board of Revision staff providing little relief to suffering home owners.

Former Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar, an organizer for Citizens United For Fairness, provided a sympathetic tone to the conversation.

“From a lot of the calls I’ve gotten, people feel the same way that you do about your property taxes,” she told a diverse the crowd ranging in age from their early 30’s to late 70’s.

Shelly Davis, Director of the Board of Revisions, gave a PowerPoint presentation on steps residents can take to appeal their tax assessments.

“The Board of Revisions is statutorily created just for this process. When you have a value increase, the Board of Revisions is the only agency you can go to have your property values considered. We’re a stand-alone agency,” she said. “The Board Members are made of up of representatives from the County Commissioners Office, the Auditors Office, and Treasures Office. Our hearing officers include three attorneys, three licensed appraisers, and three people that have what I call a mix bag of tricks that are real estate orientated, most of which have degrees.”

“We’re committed to serving the taxpayers,” she added.

The Cuyahoga County Board of Revisions website (https://bor.cuyahogacounty.us)is the best portal to access filing a petition for reevaluation, according to Davis. The site is currently open through April 1, 2019. Residents wishing to submit a petition should follow instructions to the letter.

“If you leave information out of the proposal, you will receive a rejection notice,” Davis said. “Make certain to redact personal information. Your proposal becomes public property, out there for the world to see, and I can’t give it back to you.”

Cuyahoga County Board of Revisions asks that applicants provide support materials to make their case, including a professional appraisal, photographs, and contractor estimates for repairs, for example.

“The complaint form is self-explanatory,” she said, adding, “I did not design this. This form has been in existence since 1980 when I started at the County. It has never changed.”

The Board of Revisions will notify applicants on a hearing date. All hearings are recorded and become a permanent record. Applicants will have an opportunity to present their testimony. It’s advised to attend the hearing if you can. The Board of Revisions renders their decision within 5-7 days.

Dennis Kennedy, Cuyahoga County Fiscal Officer, explained that appraisals were initially done with the assistance of a Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal (CAMA) system.

“We’re not allowed to go on the property. We don’t go in structures. We have a bunch of documents including sales histories, comparable values, description of the property, but when an appraiser goes by and visually inspects that’s all they have access to. You can have two houses that look similar but if one house has water damage, needs repairs, we don’t know that. That’s what the Board of Revisions is for,” he said. “Our responsibility legally is to set the value on properties. The impact of that value on your taxes are the result of other issues most of which are outside our control.  We cannot assess value to generate more money.”

CAMA has an accurate probability rate of about 80% according to several reports. The mass assessment system which uses a regression analysis was never approved by the Ohio Tax Commissioner as required by law. CAMA does not conform to accepted scientific or statistical practice, critics argue.

Faulty data handling, a selective property collection process, and failure to analyze the market sales information can skew the CAMA findings.  Which properties selected by field inspectors for comparable properties determine the outcome, including houses that are listed but have not sold and handyman specials can move the needle in either direction.

Cleveland.com reported County Council approved paying more than $2.3 million to 44 state-certified appraisers who determined what home and business owners will pay in property taxes in 2019.

Appraisers evaluated more than 100 properties a day, according to Lisa Rocco, Director of Operations, Fiscal Office Cuyahoga County. The county estimates the number of residential properties at close to 500,000. A privately-owner company, John G. Cleminshaw, Inc., was hired to appraise the county’s commercial real estate.

Real estate appraisal trainees require no formal education.  A recent job description at John G. Cleminshaw, Inc., listed no experience required, high school diploma or equivalent, and must have reliable transportation. The average starting rate for appraisal trainees in Ohio of $12 per hour is 34% below the national average.

Some residents complained a combination of a flawed CAMA data system and unskilled field appraisers led to gross overvaluation of their property.

“I was compared to new construction, which shouldn’t have happened. My assessment was extremely high as a result of the comparison,” said property owner Fay Harris. Harris has been a resident of Ohio City for more than 33 years.

“I did research on the CAMA system. I did contact a couple of appraisers and banks. They said if the county is using the CAMA system in doing mass appraisals, you can be guaranteed that new construction will be evaluated against your property.”

She added, “I went in front of the Revision Board. They didn’t have a clue. I contacted the state Office of Tax Commissioner. I needed to understand this process. He said training for appraisers is only a week long.  Seniors are sitting in their homes, deathly scared, not computer savvy, 78 or 80 years old, and older. They honestly believe they’ll be put out on the street.”

A visibly upset crowd gathered around former Congresswoman Oakar for support following a meeting which left them with little recourse except to file a complaint with the Board of Revisions, a time-consuming process that could cost them thousands.

“The appraisals were off to begin with,” she assured the crowd. “I honestly believe that the Board of Revision has to be much more sensitive to the people that come before them. Not all people have the sophistication or ability to take pictures or to afford a new appraisal. It’s ridiculous. Something has to be done. My neighbor came to me crying.”

oakar

PHOTO BY BRUCE CHECEFSKY
Thursday, December 13, 2018; Franklin Circle Church, 1688 Fulton: Mary Rose Oakar of Citizens United For Fairness talks to residents about the process of challenging their property tax assessment before the Cuyahoga County Board of Revision.

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