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Taxpayers group wants outside assessor

The Becker County Taxpayers Association tried to get two of its resolutions through the county board Tuesday, but found little support among commissioners.

The group asked commissioners to bring in an outside assessor "with clean, blank field cards" to reevaluate 58 parcels. That land is considered to represent possible conflicts of interest for the freelance assessors who originally did the work, since they either belonged to relatives or to the assessors themselves.

The disputed parcels were revealed by the freelancers, who responded to County Assessor Steve Skoog when he asked all of them working in Becker County if they had assessed any parcels owned by themselves or relatives.

The chief deputy in the county assessor's office, Janis Golkowski, has already reviewed assessments of most of the disputed parcels and found no smoking gun, said Skoog.

"In general, there weren't any problems," he said. "No large changes or discrepancies or anything like that."

That did not satisfy the three or four members of the Taxpayer Association.

"Just do what is right. That's all we're asking you to do," said Curt Sitko.

Taxpayers Association President Les Ristinen called for an outside assessor to be brought into Becker County to reassess the disputed parcels, and also called on the board to add to the list several more "questionable" parcels in Spruce Grove Township.

He did not provide the additional parcels to the board, saying he did not like the word "advisement" when acting Chairman Barry Nelson said the county would take the information "under advisement," which Nelson said meant the county would look into the allegations.

Ristinen urged the county to avoid even the appearance of impropriety by adopting the association's resolutions.

"If you want a big problem, we can make it a big problem," he told commissioners. "We're not hamstrung by what you do. The Becker County Taxpayers Association is asking you in a polite way, in a legal way..."

Because Skoog has family ties to some of the freelance assessors, he should not be the one to reassess their work, Ristinen said.

In an interview, Skoog agreed, and said that's why he assigned the task to Golkowski.

Freelance assessors working in Becker County include Skoog's uncle, Rodney Salmen, who is retiring after this year, a brother, Lowell Skoog, and a brother-in-law, the two of which formerly operated an assessing business with Skoog.

Skoog consulted with county attorney Joe Evans and sold his interest in the business when he became county assessor. His relatives follow his coding system like everybody else, Skoog said.

Under Skoog, the accuracy and fairness of assessments in Becker County have steadily improved. The county now does a better job of assessing than a number of other counties in the region, according to information available on the Minnesota Department of Revenue Web site.

Freelance assessors don't set taxable value on property, and haven't since Skoog revamped the assessor's office when he took over several years ago.

Now, they scout property and code it according to criteria set by the assessor's office -- things like the size and condition of the house and outbuildings, whether it is lakeshore acreage, agricultural land, or a city home.

Skoog then sets the taxable value for the entire neighborhood or small area of the county, based on real estate sales. So freelancers don't know what the ultimate value will be as they go about their coding work, Skoog said in an interview.

Since all assessment data is public information, and discrepancies easily spotted, it's not likely that freelance assessors would jeopardize their livelihoods by trying to give themselves or relatives a break, he added.

Commissioner Harry Salminen questioned whether an outside assessor could come in and use a blank assessment card, as the group suggested.

"You can't go in blind like that and make an assessment," he said. Other commissioners agreed.

But Ristinen -- a former freelance assessor himself -- disagreed. "A trained assessor can go in and do it anywhere. It's simple," he said.

Ristinen sparred briefly with Commissioner Bob Bristlin, who questioned the relevance of the Taxpayers Association, which he said now has few members.

"We have a handful of people (Taxpayers Association members) who have complaints against Mr. Skoog, but we have way more people who say he's doing a good job," Bristlin said.

Ristinen said the size of the group doesn't matter, since it speaks for all taxpayers.

Townships, which hire the freelance assessors, are largely happy with their work, and the county shouldn't change its system to please the Taxpayers Association, Bristlin said.

"Your ignorance is appalling," Ristinen told Bristlin as he left the commissioners' room at the courthouse.

The reassessment of the 58 parcels was spurred in part by a new code of ethics and conduct recently adopted for all licensed Minnesota assessors.

The disputed parcels amount to 27 instances where the 12 freelance assessors working in Becker County identified a family member or themselves as owning a parcel that they assessed. Not all cases involve immediate relatives -- defined as "spouse, parent, son or daughter by blood or marriage" -- covered by the new ethics code.

Skoog said his office rarely if ever has had to adjust assessments because of family ties with the assessor. But he asked assessors about family ties at the behest of Board Chairwoman Karen Mulari, who wanted to put to rest repeated allegations of impropriety from the Taxpayers Association.

The board took no action Tuesday on the Taxpayer Association's request for an outside assessor.