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Back-tax rules should change

Counties should have to spot errors faster and look forward, not back

Remember the Chance card in the game of Monopoly, Bank error in your favor: Collect &

36;200? The Jackson County Assessor's Office has a new twist on that. Assessment error in your favor: Pay &

36;1,795.38.

That's the notice a Medford couple recently received, and they're not alone. County assessment officials estimate they'll send out about 1,000 such letters.

What's troubling about this is not that these property owners shouldn't have to pay taxes based on the true value of their homes. It's the haphazard way the county is going about it, the attitude of assessment officials and the retroactive nature of the repayment the county is demanding.

In the case of the Medford couple, Charles and Georgie Gipe, the clerical error that led to their underpayment occurred 11 years ago. State law allows the county to collect the unpaid tax only for the past five years, so the Gipes aren't facing a dozen years of arrears. But the hit is big enough.

It's also unfair, and the state law should be changed.

Assessor Dan Ross couldn't tell the Mail Tribune exactly how many errors county staff have found or how many resulted in property being undervalued or overvalued. And neither Ross nor County Treasurer Gary Cadle could say much revenue the county might realize from billing taxpayers who have been paying too little.

— Ross also seemed to have little sympathy for taxpayers surprised by a bill they didn't expect.

They got away with it all those years, he said of the Gipes, noting that their neighbors have paid at a higher rate since 1993.

True, except that the Gipes had no way of knowing that their property was wrongly classified. How do you get away with something you didn't cause and don't know is happening?

Ross notes that his office has half the staff it did more than 10 years ago. We can sympathize with that. But we wonder whether overworked staff members are continuing to make mistakes today that won't be detected for another decade.

We understand the goal of making sure everyone pays the taxes they actually owe. But wouldn't it be better to devote staff time to fixing errors going forward, rather than going after property owners who will be hard pressed to scrape up five years of arrears?

State law once allowed a property owner as many years to pay back taxes as it took assessors to find the error. That's much more reasonable. Lawmakers should consider reinstating that standard.

But we would go a step further: Change the law to give county staff one year to find errors and collect back taxes. If they find an error after that, they can adjust the tax rate going forward, but not recover back taxes.

That would focus staff time and effort on today's tax rolls. It would still clean up the database, it would make sure the county is collecting the money it is entitled to collect, and it wouldn't impose undue hardship on homeowners.