Serious concerns about a former elected official’s personal financial gains from a tax system that he created while in office are being raised just ahead of the Tuesday primary.
Steve Miller, the former Larimer County Assessor who is again seeking the Republican nomination, has solicited Larimer County property owners by letter offering to serve as their agent to protest properties he considers overvalued by the current assessor’s office. A successful protest before the Board of Equalization would result in a lower property tax. Miller would then collect a fee of 50 percent of the annual tax savings from the property owner.
Curiously, the supposedly incorrect property valuations were based on a system that Miller himself implemented when he was the assessor from 1989-2002 and that is still in use today.The solicitation letter
Miller states in the June 17, 2004 letter that he has performed an “analysis of sales of properties in your area and on adjustments made to correct other valuations, that your property at [redacted] is overvalued. It is not too late to fix that problem.”
In a companion document mailed with the letter from Miller:
What constitutes a “fair and equitable” assessment?
Colorado law requires residential properties to be valued at market value as of a certain date. In Larimer County, the market data used for the 2003 and 2004 valuations was from an 18-month period (January 1, 2001, through June 30, 2002) with all sales ‘time adjusted’ to the end of the period.
In an interview with Colorado Confidential, Miller contended that he was not responsible for the valuations though he was the Assessor during the entire 2001 calendar year upon which the valuations were performed. Two-thirds of the valuation period was on Miller’s watch.
Miller’s document further implies that he has insider knowledge:
Who is Steve Miller and does he know what he’s doing?
I served as the Larimer County Assessor for several years. I finished up the 1989 reappraisal and supervised the next six reappraisals through 2001.
Actually, I did more than just supervise. I built the residential valuation models, often late at night at home in my bathrobe. Not an appealing image, but I know the process very well.
When Colorado Confidential mentioned to Miller that people have questioned the ethics of him now earning a living exploiting the property tax valuation system that he created “in his pajamas” during his tenure as Assessor, he denied that he was responsible for it.
“No, no, no, no. That’s never been true. Who told you that?”, he argued.
“It’s in your letter, sir”, replied this reporter.
“My wife will tell you that I was up late at night. Actually, I think the proper term was ‘in my bathrobe’ since I don’t wear pajamas,” he remarked snidely.
“It seems like Miller set the whole thing up”
People familiar with the assessor’s office and Miller’s involvement in the tax protest process have referred to the situation as “odd” and “inappropriate.”
“I did in those hearings wonder how he was soliciting these people to represent them,” said democrat Karen Wagner, a Larimer County Commissioner and member of the Board of Equalization which hears property tax appeals. “What was he getting out of it?
“Obviously, he was doing it for political reasons. I would presume to say that he used the info to the effect that as a private citizen that he represented individuals and got X number of, maybe millions of, dollars in taxes abated. That’s what I figured he was using it for but certainly he had something to gain from it now if it’s as you explained it,” Wagner said. “This is all news to me.”
“If he’s indicating that he has insider information that’s going to help them win their appeal, that’s way out of bounds.”
“I was a little astounded… that he chose to [represent property owners] by sitting at the staff table as though he were still the Assessor. He conducted his portion of the appeal from that position. That was really odd to me. We don’t have other representatives come to appeal an assessment and sit down with the staff as though they’re in charge of the whole department.”
Laverna Barnhart, a long-time member of the Larimer County Board of Equalization, said of Miller’s involvement in the appeal process, “It does seem unusual that he would do that. The charges seem to be excessive.” She explained that the appeal process is so simple that most people can do it on their own. While some property owners who are out of town may call on the services of agent to represent their interests most residents appeal on their own.
Larimer County Democratic Party co-chair Ann Harroun is a former Vermont legislator and former real estate agent. She offered a different solution that has been successful in Vermont. “It’s a little off the track but it would be better really to hire an assessor and get it on a professional level… and then you’ve got continuity. It seems like Miller set the whole thing up one way.
Colorado Confidential will continue reporting on this breaking story throughout the day.
UPDATE – 7 August 2006 11:55AM MDT: GOP Candidate’s Ethical Concerns: A Continuing Story