Ranchers seek property tax relief

Jan 20, 2012

Dozens of Yavapai County ranch families filed a lawsuit in the Arizona Tax Court seeking relief for illegallycollected property taxes and flawed property valuations that were made by the Yavapai County Assessor’s Office on their respective agricultural properties.

The action encompasses 431 parcels of land comprising over 429,000 acres of land within Yavapai County.

According to the Arizona Cattle Grower’s Association (ACGA), the property owners were backed into a corner by the assessor and felt as if they had no choice but to file the action to obtain relief from a bad situation. The court filing states, in part, that the Yavapai County assessor “determined 2012 full cash values for each of the individual tax parcels . . . that are excessive and illegal as a result of her failure to follow the requirements set forth in A.R.S.

On numerous occasions, and through multiple prior hearings, these property owners have attempted to rectify this situation before they were left with the last option of going to Tax Court. These Yavapai County taxpayers have been attempting to get the Assessor’s Office to follow the state law for valuing such properties. The continued refusal of the Assessor’s Office to recognize that a simple survey conducted by the Arizona Department of Revenue did not comply as a “substitute for her independent statutory obligation to calculate the average annual net cash rental of grazing land in Yavapai County,” led to this action.

A recent study commissioned by ACGA revealed dramatic flaws in the assessor’s insistence on utilizing a superficial study that only reflected 58,000 acres of grazing land. In contrast, the ACGA study is based on leases of nearly 650,000 acres of private grazing land in Yavapai County, as well as more than 4 million acres of public grazing land.

ACGA hired Paul J. Mooney of the Mooney, Wright & Moore, PLLC law firm to represent the parties in this case. That firm’s practice is focused almost exclusively on resolving state and local tax controversies.

According to Mooney, the number of acres involved in this property tax lawsuit is the largest he has seen.

Mooney said his clients have done everything they can to try to resolve the tax issue, but nothing has worked. In addition to hiring an outside lawyer, the county has filed a motion to dismiss, according to Mooney. “It looks like they are probably pushing back,” Mooney said.

The plaintiffs include some big ranches in Yavapai County, including Fain, Groseta, Hays, Maughn, Kieckhefer, James, Teskey, McCraine and Denton. Ranches include Yavapai, Orme and Inscription Canyon. Andy Groseta is ACGA’s president.

The combined group own or lease 2.5 million acres of public and private ag land in Yavapai County, which accounts for almost half of the entire county.

In February of 2011, the Yavapai Assessor’s Office raised the value of grazing land from $7.56 per acre in the 2011 tax year to $25 per acre in the 2012 tax year. In

Arizona, grazing land values are based on income. This increase takes the value of the 429,310 acres from $3.2 million to over $10 million.

According to the lawsuit, the $7.56 per acre has been used since 1987.

The assessor’s value of the property was based on an Arizona Department of Revenue analysis of only 58,000 acres of grazing land rentals, the lawsuit said.

“It could be devastating to the Yavapai County ranching industry when someone is using a flawed study to increase property values 400 percent,” Bas Aja, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattle Feeders’ Association, told reporters.

According to Mooney, the assessor has hinted a number of times that she believes agriculture gets an unfair break. Whether or not they do is not the issue, Mooney adds. “If they have a problem with the legal method used to value ag, then they should take it to legislations,” he said. “All these ranchers want is for her to follow the law.”

In an ACGA comprehensive study of the average value of grazing land, they concluded it was only $3.54/ acre. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor