Grand Forks County to pursue fixes to land valuation system, despite objections
The mood was tense at the Grand Forks County Office Building Thursday where the county commissioners went against the majority of the audience in their recommendations to address rising land valuations.
The officials opted for providing temporary relief to landowners who saw big hikes in land valuations, specifically on the western edge of the county, and set a flat rate for non-cropland acres.
Land valuations saw a 10.5 percent increase on average throughout the county, but the five townships with the biggest increases were all on the western side and saw increases of more than 40 percent.
As a result, the county Soils Committee and commissioners met with about 75 landowners and ultimately voted to allow for a 20 percent decrease in the productivity index used to calculate land valuations for 2014.
While County Tax Equalization Director Amber Gudajtes said it is still unclear whether this will apply to townships in the west or to townships that saw increases of more than 50 percent, those townships are going to see a decrease in their valuations. A flat rate was also set for non-cropland acres using suggestions from landowners in the meeting at $190 per acre, which is 9 percent higher than the rate in 2013.
But many left the meeting unhappy, shaking their heads in disgust and talking among themselves about what they see as a flawed system.
Todd Leake of Fairfield Township was one of them.
“The state isn’t communicating, the county isn’t communicating with us and they’re raising taxes without taking into consideration that some of this land isn’t very productive,” he said.
Mitch McCoy of Logan Center Township agreed. He addressed the commissioners during the meeting, saying he didn’t agree with using inaccurate valuation calculation methods.
“They know there are issues but they’re still proceeding with it, so now we’re going to play catch-up to try to resolve it,” he said after the meeting. “It’s like releasing a car before it’s done and then you got to recall it. All it does is cost money and it’s a headache. That’s what I feel like they’ve done here is release a product that isn’t ready yet.”
Land valuations are calculated using the National Resource Conservation Service’s soil-productivity index, which measures the fertility of soil for growing wheat. That was a big point of contention because some landowners who attended the meeting pointed out that the largest crop in the county is in fact soy beans.
Another contributor to the problem that the Soils Committee plans to work on are the “modifiers” that are reported by landowners to their township tax assessors. These modifiers decrease the valuations of land and include inaccessibility, irregular fields, poor drainage, rocks in the soil, soil salinity, stream overflow and wind erosion.
The modifiers were documented five years ago, and many landowners didn’t realize then that underreporting their modifiers would cost them money later.
“We’re willing to work things out. We just need to have maybe some more guidelines. … It sounds like we need modifier police out there,” Gudajtes said.
Gudajtes said some townships were more generous than others in reporting these modifiers. Also, while the Soils Committee is not supposed to mandate a blanket modifier rate for a township, they did so at a meeting last December for Rye and Inkster Townships, neither of which turned in their own modifier maps.
Arvilla Township’s tax assessor Paul Bernardy owns land in Moraine Township and brought the issue to light at a Soils Committee meeting.
“If we would have not turned our maps in at Moraine Township, we would have automatically gotten a 10 percent modification instead of getting just the little bit of modification we were directed to do,” he said.
The third major issue for landowners was the fact that the valuations were done without discerning non-cropland from cropland. After much debate, the two types of land will be evaluated separately and commissioners set the valuation at $190 per acre across the board for non-cropland in agreement with the majority of the crowd in attendance.
While some simply wanted to use land valuations from 2013 instead of trying to patch up the system, Gudajtes lobbied strongly for moving forward.
“We’re going to have to address this issue some time, why not do it now?” she said.
County officials admitted there are still problems with how modifiers are reported and the productivity index factors, so a committee consisting of two Soils Committee members, a county commissioner and two landowners was formed to try to find a solution.
Despite his frustration with the meeting, McCoy said this is a chance to start working with county officials to fix the problem.
“I think it was predetermined before we even got there, I think it was pretty obvious the way it was going, but I still don’t want it to be contentious,” McCoy said. “I’d rather work with them and I think we have a good opportunity to do that.”