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Jackson County property assessments 'trampled' on rights of residents, Missouri Auditor says

A row of tidy, wood-frame, multi-story houses line a neighborhood street. Large trees can be seen around the edges of the photo.
Carlos Moreno / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
The Missouri State Auditor says up to 200,000 property owners in Jackson County were victims of a severely flawed reassessment process.

In a scathing preliminary audit released Monday, Missouri State Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick said that up to 200,00 Jackson County taxpayers were victims of a reassessment that "violated state statute and trampled on their rights."

Calling the reassessment process in Jackson County "flawed and inadequate," Republican Missouri State Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick Monday released the preliminary results of his scathing audit of the county’s assessment department.

Fitzpatrick didn’t hold back when describing the numerous problems his office found in the assessment process: “Our initial work has identified deficiencies and non-compliance with state law," Fitzpatrick said. "That's led us to believe that as many as 200,000 Jackson County taxpayers have been victims of an assessment process that violated state statute and trampled on their rights."

Jackson County Assessor Gail McCann Beatty said her office is reviewing the findings.

Fitzpatrick called on the county to invalidate all reassessments that increased a property's assessed value by more than 15%, the hike needed to trigger an interior inspection of the property.

According to his preliminary report, taxpayers whose property values increased by that amount were not properly notified of their right to an in-person interior inspection.

Fitzpatrick’s office discovered that tens of thousands of letters to taxpayers whose property increased in value by that amount never got mailed, "due to the excessive demand this would have put on department officials and resources," according to the audit.

Fitzpatrick said the lack of in-person interior inspections will be a focus as the audit continues.

It’s highly unusual for a state auditor to release the results of an audit before it’s completed. But Fitzpatrick told reporters Monday that time was of the essence, since property taxes must be paid by December 31.

"If I were in your shoes and I felt that my assessment was unfair, I would pay my taxes under protest and then plan to pursue the remedies available to me by law," Fitzpatrick said. That includes an appeal to the State Tax Commission.

Following the release of the preliminary report Monday, Jackson County Legislator Sean Smith called for an emergency meeting of the Jackson County legislature so it can recommend that the Board of Equalization take the advice of the auditor and invalidate reassessments over 15%. Smith, a Republican is running for Congress in 2024.

"The unlawful reassessment that has placed a massive financial and emotional hardship on so many Jackson County residents must be immediately corrected," Smith said in a statement. "I am disappointed that these issues which were first highlighted months ago haven't yet been resolved."

Former Board of Equalization member Preston Smith, who represented the Blue Springs School District for 14 years and has been a severe critic of the Assessment Department since at least 2019, called the auditor's report an "earthquake."

Smith said his own data suggests up to 50,000 property owners were not notified by mail that their assessed valuation was increasing, but they did receive their tax bills.

"Somehow (the bills) found their way to those people and the notices didn't. Imagine that," he said.

Even the letters that did get mailed were deficient, according to the audit. They did not include a date, leaving taxpayers with no idea how close they were to the 30-day window to file an appeal. Some letters were sent so close to the appeal deadline that it would be almost impossible to file an appeal with updated information from an inspection.

"The notices that were sent out were, in our conclusion, they were legally deficient," Fitzpatrick said. He called the errors a competency issue. "You think you would want to make sure that the notices that are being sent out do hit the requirements of the state statute," he said.

Monday’s report is latest black eye for the Jackson County Assessment Department. In September, Lee's Summit and Independence sued the county alleging County Executive Frank White and McCann Beatty "fail and refuse their clear and unconditional duty to assess real property taxes in Jackson County in the way required by Missouri law," according to the lawsuit. A hearing is set for January 5.

In July, the State Tax Commission ruled against the county in an assessment dispute with the former owners of the County Club Plaza. A hearing officer ruled the county overvalued 20 Plaza properties by 38%. If that ruling is upheld on an expected appeal, taxing districts — including Kansas City Public Schools — would be forced to refund the owners of the Plaza millions of dollars.

Late Monday, McCann Beatty said in a statement that the Auditor’s findings are being “carefully reviewed and thoroughly analyzed.” But she also said her office believes there are mistakes in the preliminary findings, especially around when physical inspections are required. McCann Beatty also said her office remains “actively engaged with the auditors.”

Fitzpatrick said the county is fully cooperating with the audit. The audit was requested by the county Legislature after Fitzpatrick said his office received complaints about the reassessment.

Updated: December 18, 2023 at 5:38 PM CST
This story was updated with a response from the Jackson County Assessor.
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