KEARNEY — After a contentious 2019 with nearly 2,000 protests, questions swirl as the 2020 season for property valuation protests approaches.

The outstanding questions include how many protests will there be this year, and how can they be done safely amid a coronavirus outbreak?

A third question — where will protests be conducted — was answered this week when the county reserved the Buffalo County Extension Building as the venue for this year’s protests.

“That’s how they do it in Lancaster County,” said Bill McMullen of Kearney, chair of the Buffalo County Board of Commissioners. “You have room to keep people separated, and there are restrooms and plenty of parking.”

The Extension Building is available because the Buffalo County Fair has been canceled. The fair was scheduled July 22-28, which would have occurred during the period when valuation protests will be heard.

Safety is a primary concern, said McMullen, but he believes property owners favor face-to-face protests, rather than using videoconferencing technology, as the county board has been doing for its twice-monthly meetings.

McMullen said health and safety have been top-of-mind for county officials since the courthouse and many other county venues were locked down March 2.

Offices have stayed in operation since that date, but because citizen access is restricted, not all functions can be performed at the courthouse, and that includes valuation protests.

The protest season opens in two weeks, beginning with the June 1-30 period when property owners may file protests with the county clerk. Valuation referees will hear the owners’ protests from about mid-June to mid-July. The county board then will have until July 25 to finalize its decisions on the protests.

Valuation issues

McMullen has spent much of the past 10 months addressing property valuation issues with County Assessor Ethel Skinner.

Last year, Buffalo County continued the trend of averaging 2,000 protests per year — highest among Nebraska counties.

To manage that many protests, Buffalo County has been hiring professional referees and will do so again this year. They hear protests and make recommendations to the county board. That strategy has cost about $150,000-$160,000 annually. Added to the referee expense this year will be the cost of plastic glass partitions and computers so the valuation protests can be done in person at the Extension Building.

McMullen got involved with assessment issues after an overflow crowd of real estate agents and business leaders complained to the county board about property valuations in 2019. Prompted by in-depth reports in the Kearney Hub, members of the crowd said there didn’t seem to be explanations for the fluctuations in valuations, and the county board repeatedly was voting to correct assessor errors brought to its attention.

In addition, many property owners felt they were caught in a cycle that forced them either to protest valuations year after year or ignore the assessment and absorb the higher taxes.

How many protests?

Skinner said it is difficult to predict how many property owners will protest their valuations this year, but a number of efforts have been made to reduce the number of protests.

Acting on a seven-step plan that McMullen drafted, Skinner aimed to get an outside analysis of her office, provide training for her staff, educate property owners about the assessment process and provide opportunities to resolve valuation issues without filing protests.

McMullen drafted the seven-step plan after a spillover crowd of real estate agents and business leaders told Skinner and the county board they were frustrated with the protest process and had lost confidence in the accuracy of Buffalo County’s property valuations.

The assessor’s office determines the tax value for various properties, including houses, buildings and land. The valuation then helps determine how much tax is due on properties to support schools, cities, the county and other government subdivisions.

Referees heard 1,987 protests in 2019. Whether that number will decrease in 2020 could depend upon how many valuation issues Skinner’s office has resolved between protest seasons.

In February, the assessor’s office mailed 21,400 notices of preliminary valuations to property owners across Buffalo County to inform them of the current assessed value of their property. The notices invited them to contact the assessor’s office if there were errors in the valuation. The mailing included 11,605 notices for residential properties; 7,900 for agricultural properties, acreages and rural subdivisions; and 1,895 for commercial properties.

A total of 3,730 property owners responded after receiving their notices, and Skinner’s office made assessment corrections on 2,000 of those properties.

“It was a pretty good turnout. Hopefully, we fixed things permanently,” Skinner said.

She said the 2,000 corrections resulting from the February notices might help to reduce the number of protests that start in about six weeks. Fixes made in February benefit property owners, Skinner said, because they are “permanent.”

Adjustments made as a result of valuation protests are not permanent, which is based on the Nebraska statutes. The valuation determined after a protest will apply to that year’s property taxes, but it reverts on Jan. 1 to the assessed value, Skinner said.

She said it’s important that property owners understand that protests result in a temporary fix, but fixes made as a result of the preliminary valuation notices are permanent.

Educational effort

One of the thrusts of the seven-step plan called upon Skinner and the assessor’s office to communicate with property owners and educate them about the valuation process.

Skinner spoke with Buffalo County real estate agents and also appeared at several service club meetings. She had scheduled an appearance with land developers, McMullen said, but the meeting was canceled “when the COVID-19 virus reared its ugly head.”

Skinner said the assessment process is complicated, so it’s challenging to teach property owners about the ins and outs. However, the more they learn, the better chance they stand of ensuring their property has a fair and correct value for tax purposes.

Kearney real estate agent Rocky Geiser was one of three Kearney agents who sat on the committee to advise Skinner as she acted on the seven-step program. Other agents were Nicole Straka and Matt Meister. Rounding out the committee were county Commissioners Dennis Reiter of Elm Creek, Myron Kouba of Kearney and McMullen.

“I think we’re much closer to having a fair assessment for everyone,” Geiser said about the efforts to address tax valuation issues, “but all of these issues run a lot deeper.”

Geiser said if people dig into the matter, they might conclude that Skinner shouldered much of the blame for problems that had been brewing for years. “Everybody came in with their gun cocked and loaded. We immediately went into, ‘shoot the messenger’ mode.”

He said politics and favoritism may influence the assessment process, and if that happens some property owners shoulder more than their share of the tax load. “Things were allowed to slide for a long time. Things were undervalued dramatically.”

A longtime real estate agent at Re/Max Executives, Geiser also has been a licensed appraiser and taught finance and general real estate at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He said it’s natural to favor simplicity over complexity, but people would benefit by paying attention when they receive notices from the assessor’s office.

That would include the yellow postcards that soon will arrive with their property’s assessed value.

“People should get their postcards on May 29, 30 or June 1,” Skinner said. If they disagree with their valuation, the deadline to file a protest with the county clerk is June 30.