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For a glimpse of Jackson County assessment problems, just check these three houses

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Tuesday, June 18, 2013, at 5:29 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, June 18, 2013, at 5:29 p.m.

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Tale of 3 houses

7 Janssen Place

Appraised market value: $267,368

The 1909 home sold for $1.05 million six years ago, yet has been valued at a fourth of that for at least a decade.

17 Janssen Place

Appraised market value: $96,723

Before its renovation, this house was valued for tax purposes at roughly $50,000. After an addition and complete restoration, the value was said to still be less than $100,000.

19 Janssen Place

Appraised market value: $221,866

This former duplex cost the current owners $242,500 in 2005. The county says it’s near that value after being converted into a single-family home.

Six bedrooms, five baths and loads of luxury.

The Italianate revival-style home at 7 Janssen Place was built in 1909, elegantly restored and now plays host to events like the Kansas City Art Institute fundraiser held there recently.

Frank and Ann Uryasz paid more than $1 million for their 5,000-square-foot house in 2006. The previous owner shelled out $700,000 two years before that.

Yet the Jackson County assessor’s office has its market value set at what you might pay for a three-bedroom fixer-upper in Brookside: $267,368.

The values for many other homes on that street appear to be just as jumbled.

According to the county, one renovated mansion on the block is worth just $96,000, when houses half its size and in worse condition are valued at twice that.

“How the county does its valuations is beyond me,” Frank Uryasz said.

The system is also beyond the comprehension of thousands of Jackson County property owners who recently received notices showing what the county thinks their homes and businesses are worth.

Many of the county’s 268,000 properties saw little change in value this year. But about one-third of the properties came up for special reassessment review.

Most of those included in that group were west of Troost Avenue in neighborhoods like Waldo, Coleman Highlands and Hyde Park. Like Janssen Place, it had been many years since anyone from the assessor’s office had tried to peg the market value of those homes for tax purposes.

The result was that thousands of properties in those areas saw increases, some as much as 40, 50, even 100 percent.

Those hikes raised fears that the ensuing tax bills might price some people out of their homes.

A week after the uproar began, Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders promised that his administration would take another look at the values set on 18,000 residential properties whose valuations went up or down as a result of reassessment.

Mistakes were made, he and some county staffers acknowledge, and last week the county legislature authorized the hiring of an outside appraisal firm to see what went wrong.

“If there’s a problem,” said Sanders’ top aide, Calvin Williford, “then we’re going to get to the bottom of it and fix it.”

The irony, county officials acknowledge, is that the 2013 reassessment was part of a Sanders-administration effort to accomplish just that: fix a broken property-assessment system that for years has produced inequities that place unfair tax burdens on some and not others.

Janssen Place, two leafy blocks of century-old mansions and a few duplexes near 36th Street and Gillham Road, is something of a microcosm for what’s gone wrong, says county assessor Curtis Koons.

Hired shortly after Sanders took office in 2007, Koons set out to fulfill his boss’s campaign pledge of updating property values on a more regular basis so that they reflect market reality.

Yet there have been setbacks along the way, such as state funding cuts and the recent snafu that has homeowners howling.

So far, Koons said, he hasn’t figured out just what went wrong in 2013. But he promises to fix the problem and send out revised assessment notices in the next couple of weeks to those 18,000 taxpayers in time for them to appeal, if they choose.

As for the owners of the 31 properties on Janssen Place who were initially skipped in 2013, they’ll be getting new notices any day now, Koons said, and some should be prepared to gulp hard.

Ignoring data

To understand how a million-dollar house on Janssen Place can be valued at a fourth of that for tax purposes, you need to understand the dilemma that Koons and his predecessors have been coping with.

The state requires that property values reflect market realities, but Jackson and many other counties have trouble keeping current.

As the housing market soared in the 1990s and first half of the 2000s, there never was enough staff to appraise homes on a regular basis. Instead of doing it every couple of years, they’d be lucky to get out on a particular street once a decade.

In the last five years, it’s gotten worse because of a 50 percent cut in state payments. Koons’ office, which once had a staff of 100, now has 62 employees, of whom just 17 are appraisers who go out into the field.

On top of that, they had one hand tied behind their backs for years. It wasn’t until just before the real estate bust that Jackson County got access to the sales data it needed to set market values accurately.

Yet even after that information was made available in 2004, there were concerns about relying on it too much.

Sales data could be part of a county-wide formula. But it wouldn’t be fair, Koons says, to jack up assessments one property at a time based on the sales price. That would mean the guy who just bought his house would pay higher taxes than the person in a similar house next door who had been living there longer.

However, there are head-scratching exceptions to that.

Just two doors down from the Uryasz house is the home of Heidi and Ethan Whitehill at 19 Janssen Place. It’s much smaller on a lot half the size. The Whitehills bought it back in 2005, when it was a duplex, and turned it into a single-family home.

They paid $242,500, according to the certificate of value filed with the county.

As of last week, the market value set by the assessor’s office was $221,876.

Heidi Whitehill was surprised to learn that her house was valued at so much more than some bigger houses on the block. “Our house is considerably smaller,” she said.

The Whitehills’ value is so close to the sales price that Koons thinks it reflects the last sale, minus the housing-plunge discount reflected across the county in 2009.

He shrugs when asked why the two sales prices of 7 Janssen were seemingly ignored by the assessor’s office, while the one sale of 19 Janssen during the same period was relied on for setting the property’s market value.

“That was before my time,” he said.

Bad comps?

From the day he took the job, Koons’ plan has been to gradually bring property values up to date countywide. The idea was to do it in three phases.

A third of all properties, residential as well as commercial, were re-assessed in 2011. A third were done this year and a third are scheduled to be done two years from now, although funding difficulties now may string things out beyond 2015.

Right now, the emphasis is on addressing complaints about the current reassessment process. In some instances, values rose steeply simply because the houses have been undervalued on the tax rolls for years, leading to dramatic increases all at once.

In other cases, something in the computer model could be at fault.

“There were obviously things done in the process that were not done properly,” said County Legislator Crystal Williams.

The assessment on her family’s house in the Hyde Park neighborhood went up 30 percent and is one of the 18,000 properties being reviewed. If the new value stays where it is, she said, “Our taxes would go up $900.”

Koons suspects if there was a glitch, it was based on “bad comps.” Assessors determine market value for a particular home by looking at sales data of comparable properties. Ten comparisons, or comps, per property is ideal, but because of slow sales during the housing crash, his office was limited to five comps in many cases, and some of those five might not even be in the same neighborhoods.

In short, some comps might not be comparable.

“We’re still at the why stages,” he said.

When they got those higher assessment notices in early May, some taxpayers asked why Janssen Place wasn’t being reassessed this cycle like the surrounding neighborhood.

But Koons said it was always his plan to review values along Janssen this year, after sending out all the other assessment notices. That way his staff could give those 31 properties the detailed look they deserved.

“It’s its own market,” Koons said.

You don’t have to tell Allan Hallquist that. He and his wife, Carol, bought their house at 17 Janssen Place back in 2000 when it was a “hoarder’s hovel,” as he calls it — a falling down relic with restored mansions all around it.

They spent a ton restoring the Jacobethan revival-style home built in 1912 and adding an addition. At 6,595 square feet, it’s one of the larger houses on the street, sitting on three quarters of an acre.

Yet for years the county ignored the improvement and had its market value listed at just $96,000.

“I’ve been expecting it,” Hallquist said of the steep hike in taxes that’s likely to result from the reassessment he and his neighbors will be getting soon.

Three years ago, someone from the assessor’s office came to see whether the addition he’d taken a permit out for a decade before was ever built.

“Something isn’t right,” Hallquist recalled the appraiser saying when he compared the size and condition of the house with the low market value listed in county records.

But nothing changed, and he wouldn’t be surprised if the county continues to mistakenly value his house at 96K.

That’s been his experience in dealing with Jackson County over the years. But whatever the tax bill ends up being, he said, “I’ll pay it like I always do.”

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738, or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com.

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