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County assessor discusses lack of disaster abatement policy

County assessor Greg Swartwoudt approached the Lake County Board of Commissioners about creating a policy for disaster abatement for properties unintentionally damaged by fire, floods or other natural disasters at the board meeting Tuesday.

Disaster abatement allows a county to reassess the value of a property for tax purposes after a home or property is damaged by a fraction of 12. Minnesota statute allows disaster abatement, but currently Lake County's policy does not allow it.

"Current statute on abatement does not allow for you to abate taxes based on someone's home being destroyed," Swartwoudt said. "It specifically states it must be an error by the assessor."

It became an issue earlier this year when a resident's home was destroyed by fire Sept. 6. The owner called the assessor's office to ensure that he wouldn't need to pay taxes on the house for the last half of 2015, but Swartwoudt informed him that he would need to pay taxes for 2015 and, since the 2016 taxes are based on what stood on the property on Jan. 2, 2015, he would need to pay taxes on the property for 2016 as well.

Swartwoudt said the owner wasn't particularly happy about it, but they still plan to rebuild and since the house will not be on the property Jan. 2, 2016, the owner will not pay taxes for 2017.

Swartoudt contacted commissioners Rich Sve and Rick Gourtermont as well as county administrator Matt Huddleston and asked if there was a policy and found out that it was to be done on a case by case basis.

Instead of determining each case as it is presented, Swartwoudt wants to create a firm policy of either allowing disaster abatements or not.

"The point is, rather than having people come in on a case by case basis, I want to put it to the board to make the determination that you wish to have a policy in place where if someone's home is destroyed they will receive an abatement," Swartwoudt said. "Or the board is aware, that in the future if someone's home is destroyed we are not going to do abatements."

If disaster abatements are allowed, if a person's home was destroyed earlier in the year and they rebuilt and were back in the home by the end of the year, the person would receive a break on their property taxes in increments of 12 for the amount of time they were out of the home.

There have also been cases where a home burned and the county wasn't informed and Swartwoudt said he doesn't like the case by case scenario when you are dealing with people's taxes. He wants to have a clear policy where taxpayers know they will receive an abatement or they will not.

"I would like you guys to consider how you would like it dealt with in the future," Swartwoudt said.

Swartwoudt also offered to provide other policies adopted by surrounding counties. St. Louis County's policy is currently undergoing revisions, so it is currently unavailable to the public. Minnesota's policy is unclear if an abatement requires the owner to rebuild the home and it would be up to the the board to determine if the abatement requires a rebuild. Swartwoudt also said he read the statute to say the state statute only allows for an abatement of up to one year, since abatement is required to be done in increments of 12. If a rebuild takes longer than one year, property owners would still receive only a maximum of one year abatement.

"Without a policy in place, there is a policy in place," Swartwoudt said. "That policy is there is no abatements."

The board did not take action on a policy, but Swartwoudt plans to research surrounding county's policies and create a policy for Lake County to present to the board.

"Personally, I support giving somebody that has that kind of loss that short term break until they get their property built, that just makes sense from my chair," Sve said. "It's a fairness issue."

Other issues discussed at Tuesday's meeting included:

• There is a vacancy for District One of the Greater Minnesota Parks and Trails Commission. To apply go to sos.state.mn.us/index.aspx?page=308 and submit an online application or print the application and mail it to the Minnesota Office of the Secretary of State.

• The Lake County Forestry Department will be allowing cabin site leaseholders to add names to their leases until Dec. 18. Cabin site leases deal with more than 100 cabins in Lake County built on county-owned land. Letters went out this week to leaseholders with a form to fill out to add names to the leases. All current leaseholders must also sign the form.

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

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