By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON, Wis. — Some Wisconsin property assessors in both the public and private sector say it’s necessary to inspect the interior of homes to determine the most accurate property values.
Vincent Milewski and Morganne McDonald think otherwise.
The married couple from the small Wisconsin town of Dover filed a lawsuit July 23 in Racine County Circuit Court.
They allege their property was assessed in 2013 at an “excessive, arbitrary and discriminatory level” after they told an employee with the government-contracted Gardiner Appraisal Service he was not allowed to enter their house.
Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty attorney Tom Kamenick, who is representing Milewski and McDonald, contends the assessor didn’t need to view the interior of the home because the couple had not completed any major building projects since the last town re-evaluation in 2004.
“They already have a valuation of the house, and the point of a re-evalution is to see if anything has changed, and if nothing has changed, there’s nothing to inspect,” Kamenick told Wisconsin Reporter.
But several assessors who spoke to Wisconsin Reporter said it’s impossible to give an accurate assessment of a property unless they can look inside.
Assessors shouldn’t assume a homeowner hasn’t performed upgrades to their house if they haven’t been issued any building permits, Wisconsin Association of Assessing Officers President Peter Krystowiak said.
Many remodeling projects do not require building permits, and some homeowners fail to apply for the appropriate permits, according to Krystowiak, who also serves as an assessor for the city of Kenosha.
Krysowiak doesn’t believe municipalities and taxpayers should reward that “bad behavior.”
“Assessments are supposed to be equitable and fair for everyone, and if somebody’s doing it the right way, which is taking a permit and telling us and having us come through, I think we have to make certain assumptions on properties where we don’t get through,” Krysowiak said.
If assessors are denied entry into a home they must make the best “educated guess” on values based on similar properties in the area, according to Larry Nicholson, chairman of the state Real Estate Appraisers Board.
A number of variables can drastically affect the value of a house, including the quality of construction, the number of bathrooms and bedrooms, finished basements, fireplaces and built-in cabinetry, according to Appleton City Assessor DeAnn Brosman.
“If you were to purchase a house, you wouldn’t purchase it without walking through it first,” said a private-sector assessor who asked not to be identified.
Although the Wisconsin Property Assessment Manual suggests that assessors should view the inside of homes during full re-evaluations, Kamenick claims state law does not obligate assessors to conduct interior inspections.
But homeowners who don’t consent to interior reviews are not allowed to contest the assessment in front of their local boards of review, according to state statutes.
Madison City Assessor Mark Hanson considers that law in protecting assessors because he says property owners who deny searches are the only ones with all the information.
“Who do you believe when one party has the data and the other party doesn’t?” Hanson asked.
But Kamenick told Wisconsin Reporter his clients were willing to hand over all documents pertaining to their house to Gardiner Appraisal Service, but the employee left their property without asking questions.
“At no time did Gardiner interview the Plaintiffs or otherwise seek information about the interior of the property from the Plaintiffs,” the lawsuit says.
Milewski and MacDonald allege Gardiner retaliated against them for denying the inside search by assessing their Lorimar Estates property at $307,100, a 10.56 percent increase from the previous year’s assessment of $277,761.
Three other parcels in the same subdivision that also did not have interior inspections had their assessments jump by an average of 10.01 percent, according to the lawsuit.
But the subdivision’s 39 other property owners, who let assessors into their homes, experienced an average decrease in value of 5.81 percent, assessment records show.
The lawsuit states Milewski and MacDonald also had their property’s assessed value increase by about 28 percent when they did not allow Gardiner to enter their home during a town re-evaluation in 2004.
Gardiner told the couple its assessment was “based in part on the assumption that the Plaintiffs had finished their basement, when Gardiner had no evidence the Plaintiffs had in fact done so, and the Plaintiffs had not in fact finished their basement,” the lawsuit says.
Milewski and MacDonald later had their assessment lowered when they were “coerced into permitting an interior inspection,” according to the lawsuit.
Several messages left with Gardiner Appraisal Service were not returned. Town officials also declined to speak on the matter.