KEARNEY — Assessor Ethel Skinner said today she will be present Tuesday when Kearney Realtor Robert Fitzgerald asks the Buffalo County Board of Commissioners for their support in solving the county’s tax valuation problems, but she won’t tolerate misinformation about her or her office.
Fitzgerald, the 2018 president of the Buffalo County Board of Realtors, had asked Board Chairman Bill McMullen of Kearney for an opportunity to address the county’s tax valuation issues. Fitzgerald is listed on Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners agenda.
For the past three years, Buffalo County has averaged 2,124 valuation protests per year. This year, there are 1,982 protests.
The county has hired referees the past two years to hear the protests and paid them $159,000 in 2017 and $155,000 in 2018.
“We need an assessor with a commitment to work with the county board to correct this,” Fitzgerald told the Hub last week. “Right now it’s not getting better, it’s getting worse.”
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Although Skinner said she would be present for Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting, she said she will not tolerate “untruths” about her office.
“If he speaks untruths I’m going to leave,” Skinner said about Fitzgerald, who has asked colleagues in real estate and appraisal businesses to also attend Tuesday’s meeting.
Fitzgerald said in a Saturday Kearney Hub story that he had visited Skinner last week to talk about the valuation issues and how they could be resolved. He said Skinner asked him to leave the office. The Hub was unable to reach Skinner at her office Friday afternoon for a response to Fitzgerald’s statement, but today she said she felt threatened during his visit, which was unscheduled.
“He was leaning halfway across my desk. Yes, I don’t like people leaning in my face,” Skinner said. “His face was probably 2 ½ feet from my face.”
Skinner said she told Fitzgerald to lean back in his chair, and after he leaned back the conversation continued.
“I think it turned out OK, but he showed up uninvited and moved things on my desk,” she said.
Fitzgerald described his visit with Skinner as “an interesting meeting, to say the least,” and said that he is regarded in the Kearney community as a bridge builder.
When Skinner told him to lean back, Fitzgerald said he apologized “and I moved back. I didn’t lean on her desk. I tried to do everything I learned in interpersonal communications: leaning forward to show I was listening, eye contact. I tried to be sincere, and she said, ‘You’re too damn genuine.’ Honestly, I want the best for Ethel. I want to work with her and the county board to resolve this.”
Skinner said she didn’t use the word “genuine.”
“I didn’t tell him genuine because that’s not what I felt. He was too sincere. He seemed very sincere,” she said.
Today, Skinner denied the accuracy of state reports that said her office is behind on certain kinds of appraisals. She said today the reports were written using numbers from state tax officials in North Platte based on information from her predecessor, Joe Barber. Skinner said the reports should have used current numbers from her office. She said she cannot explain why the state didn’t use the numbers provided by her office.
According to the April report from Nebraska Property Tax Administrator Ruth Sorensen, Buffalo County had not physically inspected 1,400 residential parcels and 300 commercial properties within the six-year period required by state law.
Skinner said her office has three vacancies and that the staffing shortage is a handicap. Two staffers recently resigned.
She also said she is not proficient with the widely used software system that computerizes the assessment process, but that has no detrimental effects on her office. Developed by the technology division of the Nebraska Association of County Officials, MIPS (Multi-County Information and Programming Services) software allows appraisers to apply several different layers of information in the assessment process to help achieve accurate and objective assessments.
“The MIPS system is very difficult. I’m old enough that it’s not the easiest thing to learn a new computer system,” said Skinner, who will be 79 at the end of her term in 2022.
Fitzgerald said today, “People are asking me ‘What should I do?’ I would pray. We need reconciliation to resolve this problem. By pointing and blaming other people we’re not going to resolve this problem.”