Neighborhood Leaders Fear Lasting Damage From Jackson County Assessment Mess
As the deadline for Jackson County residents to file property tax appeals with the Board of Equalization approaches, neighborhood leaders worry the damage caused by such a contentious and confusing process will have lasting consequences for people in their communities.
Alan Young, who cofounded the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council with his wife, says folks in his part of town are going through a flood of emotions right now, primarily fear.
"We have both rational and irrational fears," he says, all a result of huge assessment increases.
On the rational side, Young points to a particularly bleak view of the situation.
"The No. 1 fear is that the purpose for this increase was for, or to help speed up gentrification," he says.
"We've done a lot of work in our neighborhood over the past 30 years to ... decrease crime and to make it a better neighborhood to live in," Young explains. "And now that we have done all this work, the fear is someone else will come in and take the property because the people won't be able to maintain the taxes."
On the harder-to-grasp side, Young says, is the fact that "some of the residents were scared to fill out the form because they thought by doing so the county was going to be able to take their house."
That's why Young and the neighborhood council have been fielding calls and welcoming residents to their offices at 3700 Woodland Avenue, where people can get answers to common questions and help filling out appeals forms.
Jackson County residents hoping to appeal property tax assessments to the Board of Equalization have until July 29 to do so.
Despite the neighborhood council's efforts, Young worries about property owners who don't know that the assessments could affect their tax bill come December.
"We have called over 800 people to let them know that this is going on and that we are here to help," Young says, "but we have over 4,000 residents in Ivanhoe. There's no way we can reach them all."
North and east of Ivanhoe, attorney Gregg Lombardi is sounding similar notes.
"There are a lot of people in the Lykins neighborhood ... that, in spite of all the coverage, don't know that this is an issue," says Lombardi, who is acting head of the neighborhood association there.
He particularly worries about the area's most established residents: senior homeowners.
"They're the backbone of the neighborhood and they're frequently living on fixed incomes," Lombardi says, "so if their property taxes increase 100% or 200%, either they're going to be forced to sell or they're going to lose their house."
The tax increase Lombardi and his neighbors fear isn't a sure thing yet. Even if the county holds firm on current assessment values, local taxing entities such as the Kansas City Public Schools can, and often do, reduce levies to avoid massive hikes for residents.
That can be cold comfort for fretting homeowners trying to budget for a yet-to-be-determined bill.
"If somebody sees a 100% increase in their assessment," Lombardi says, "their taxes are going up."
Also confusing for concerned residents, Lombardi says, are inconsistencies in assessment rate changes from one property to another.
"You can walk down a block and it might be a 20% increase on one house, a 200% increase on another, a 400% increase on a third, and then you come to the house that had a 40% decrease," Lombardi says. "It just seems like there's no rhyme or reason to the action they've taken."
The same is true in the suburbs of Blue Springs, Missouri, according to Preston Smith, who represents the Blue Springs School District on the Board of Equalization.
There, Smith says, fewer property owners are seeing sky-high increases, but "what we still see in Blue Springs is the incredible inconsistency from house to house."
One thing that is consistent and striking: "About one-third of the people in the Blue Springs School District had the magic 14.9% increase," says Smith, who has a background in data management.
He describes it as "magic" because an increase of 15% or more requires the assessment department to conduct a physical inspection of the property in question. The county, Smith says, went as close as it could to that standard while staying under that threshold.
Jackson County 0fficials maintain they've fulfilled all requirements of the law.
But Smith also says the assessment increases unfairly "targeted the minority areas" of Jackson County, including a 50-square-mile area in the center of Kansas City that had increases twice as much as elsewhere in the county.
"They did not get the 14.9% there," he says. "(They) got the thousand-percent increases."
In the northwestern part of that 50 square miles, Alan Young owns several vacant lots where he grows vegetables. One of the lots, at the corner of 39th Street and Wayne Avenue, saw an assessment increase of more than 2,000%.
"I said if I'd struck oil I'd be happy to pay a 2,000% increase," Young says, "but I haven't."
Despite all the teeth-gnashing at BOE meetings, during county legislative sessions and on local media, Young believes there is a deliberate purpose and reason behind the mess.
"Most of the people that I have talked to, come across in the neighborhood, believe the motive was to get people out of their property so the developers could come in and buy things at lower price and then reap a profit," he says.
Regardless of how the reassessment snafu is resolved, Lombardi suggests the damage might already be done.
"I am really afraid that what they're doing is they're undermining people's faith in government," he says. "That's a giant piece of fallout from this."
Alan Young, Gregg Lombardi and Preston Smith spoke with Sam Zeff on a recent episode of KCUR's Up To Date. Listen to their entire conversation here.
Luke X. Martin is associate producer of KCUR's Up To Date. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter, @lukexmartin.