Brown County asks for state ruling on ag land assessments

Farm Forum

By Shannon Marvel

Brown County commissioners approved a motion today to send a letter to the state Department of Revenue requesting a review of the county’s agriculture land assessment plan.

The letter will serve as a formal request asking Michael Houdyshell, director of the Property and Special Taxes Division, to review the county’s methods.

Dennis Jones owns land in the Bath area. He questioned whether using land sales when assessing ag land produces fair results.

“There hasn’t been a lot of land sales lately, so it gets pretty skewed,” Jones said during Tuesday’s commission meeting at the Brown County Courthouse.

That’s one reason South Dakota switched to a production model for determining the value of ag land in 2010. But Brown County also applies a map that breaks the county into three zones — or neighborhoods — based on what land is likely to sell for.

The result is that, generally speaking, farmers in the south part of the county and near the James River pay a larger share of property taxes than others. Whether that is proper is the question. The county’s former director of equalization, Michael Hauke Jr., claimed it wasn’t. He was fired last week.

Jones asked the commission why ag assessments weren’t based strictly on soil ratings, which he argued were more consistent and lined up with state law.

“All land sales today are based on soil ratings. It’s constant,” Jones said.

Commission Chairman Doug Fjeldheim said state law specifically allows adjustments to be made based on comparable sales.

When Jones asked commissioners whether they knew about the ag assessment plan when they approved it, they confirmed they did.

Commission Vice Chairwoman Rachel Kippley noted that she couldn’t recall the term “neighborhoods” in the plans she reviewed.

Paul Dennert, who was a state lawmaker from Columbia when the state implemented the production model, said he supported the switch, as well as adjustments made by the Legislature to give county assessors more tools when it comes to ag land. He served in Pierre from 1992 through 2012.

He defended the county.

“He is 100 percent wrong. We had a director that sat in that office that did not understand state law,” Dennert said, referring to Hauke.

Gene Loeschke, an assessor for Brown County, explained how ag land in the county is assessed, on average, within seven cents per acre of the number handed down by the state under the production model.

He said an acre of land near Stratford might have the same soil rating as an acre of land near Frederick, but due to different outliers the productivity of the parcels might be drastically different.

State law allows county directors of equalization to make local adjustments when assessing ag land. But Brown County commissioners want to know if they are doing so properly.

Hauke told the American News it is not.

Fjeldheim said the county is given guidelines on how to assess ag land and officials believe they are within those guidelines. But they want to know for sure.

The commission agreed to make the ruling from the state available to the public.

Jones said the ag producers he’s talked to were not aware of the “neighborhood” assessment method the county uses for ag land. Dennert disagreed, saying he knew at the time what the county was doing.

Follow @smarvel_AAN on Twitter.