Deal not final yet, but ag land lawsuit could be dropped

Shannon Marvel

The state has approved a plan that would lower agriculture land assessments in 15 Brown County townships for a year without increasing the county’s tax factor.

But that doesn’t quite guarantee an end to a civil lawsuit filed by a group of overtaxed landowners.

Bob Swisher, Travis Swisher, Ray Larson — three of six plaintiffs — and their attorney, Reed Rasmussen of Aberdeen, discussed the proposal with the Brown County Commission during a county meeting in January. It would lower ag land assessments in the 15 townships by 10 percent for one year as a way to compensate them for paying more than their fair share in property taxes in past years. But it needed the state’s blessing.

Brown County State’s Attorney Chris White said the state Department of Revenue has told the plaintiffs and county that it approved the proposal.

Now the parties need to work out a settlement agreement, White said.

Keeping the tax factor at 85.6 percent would give the ag land owners in the 15 townships the one-year break without punishing the rest of the county. If the state didn’t allow that, the factor would move from 85.6 percent to 88.8 percent. That would have boosted property taxes on all ag land in the county.

Whether there would be any other repercussions as a result of the settlement is still being worked out, White added.

A tax factor is determined by the Department of Revenue for each county to prevent them from purposely levying lower property taxes and shifting a higher education funding burden to the state. School districts are unable to fund their budgets with property taxes alone. So the state provides funding to make up the difference between what’s collected by counties in property taxes for education and what’s needed to run public schools.

How it happened

The Department of Revenue ruled last year that Brown County’s ag land assessment plan was faulty because assessments in some townships were higher than the top-dollar amount allowed by the state in its so-called production model. As a result, ag land owners in 15 townships paid more than their fair share in property taxes. The townships are mostly in the southern part of the county.

The old plan broke the county into three neighborhoods. It was crafted so that land that was likely to sell for more was assessed at a higher level — 118 percent of the state’s top-dollar value. Other townships in Brown County paid either 97 percent or 87 percent of the top number.

The over-assessment and overtaxation led to the lawsuit.

The details of the settlement are still being worked out, but Travis Swisher is optimistic about the lawsuit potentially being dropped.

If the settlement falls through, Swisher said he and the other plaintiffs would move forward with the lawsuit.

“It is now up to the county commission to accept the deal and close this matter,” he said in an email.

“We are happy to have this immediate matter potentially over with but will keep a vigilant eye on the county and state in following the law. We also encourage everyone to remember they have a personal responsibility to make sure their evaluations and taxes are correct,” he said.

Swisher said there are still questions to be answered regarding the state’s role in how the overtaxation of ag land was allowed to happen over the course of eight years.

“When your taxes increase 200 percent in an eight-year period, something is not right and needs to be addressed on a state level,” he said.

Columbia, Claremont, Cambria, Putney, Riverside, Aberdeen, Bath, Henry, Groton, Warner, Gem, West Hanson, West Rondell, East Rondell and Garden Prairie townships would get a 10 percent reduction in ag land assessments for one year under the proposal.