It’s not every day that someone asks to be sued.
But that’s exactly what happened in a small Pima County property tax dispute filed in Maricopa County Superior Court in July, at least according to the property owner appealing the valuation. The potential annual property tax impact is around $1,000.
“Do me a favor, and add the Pima County assessor,” Ted Sitterley, the plaintiff, recalled Pima County Assessor Bill Staples asking him after a training session for State Board of Equalization members earlier this year. Sitterley is a longstanding member of that board, which hears appeals of valuation decisions by the Pima and Maricopa county assessors.
Staples would not comment on Sitterley’s account of the exchange, or on his interest in the case because it is ongoing litigation.
“I’m not going to answer your question,” Staples said. “I can’t say that I am or am not interested in this case.”
While Sitterley said he is still “puzzled” by Staples’ apparent interest in the case, an SBOE colleague of his — Jill Maratea — said retribution for an ongoing dispute between the board and Staples could be at play. Staples denies that, and George Shook, interim SBOE chairman, said he hasn’t seen any evidence of retribution.
The fact that the assessor is named at all sets it apart, according to a review of all small tax court cases handled by the Pima County Finance Department. In 2014, the Board of Supervisors designated Finance as the department for handling cases with annual property tax impacts of under $30,000 on its behalf, essentially cutting out the assessor. Before that, the county attorney handled those cases, though the assessor’s support for any settlement was required, according to a policy document.
So far, the Finance Department has handled, or is handling, nearly 140 small-claims tax court cases, and Sitterley’s is the only one in which the assessor’s office is a named defendant, according to an analysis of records provided by the county. There is another in 2014 in which Staples was the plaintiff.
County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and Supervisor Sharon Bronson said it’s their understanding that when there are two named defendants, both must agree on any resolution of the case, effectively giving Staple’s veto power over any resolution.
The litigation involves a home near Ventana Canyon, which Sitterley purchased in 2015. He received notice this year that the assessor’s office had put its full cash value at $683,916, up from the previous year’s figure of $564,177. It was subsequently dropped to $663,916 after an initial appeal to the office by Sitterley.
Pointing to recent sales in the area, Sitterley feels that $520,000 is a fairer price, and is hoping a judge agrees. In a court filing, the assessor denies the current valuation “is excessive.” The difference in annual property tax receipts is likely around $1,000, according to estimates provided by the county.
“The savings for me would hardly be any more than what it cost to file the complaint,” Sitterley said of the $153 filing fee he paid at Maricopa Superior Court. “I did it because I felt I was right.”
Staples said his office is “not worried about taxes,” and instead concerns itself with “classification and valuation.”
“We’re worried about the full cash value of the property, we’re worried about consistency,” he added.
Full cash value is determined by the assessor using recent sales data from similar properties, though other methods can be used as well. Since 2015 limited values, which can never exceed full cash values and whose annual increases are capped at five percent, have been used to calculate all property taxes in Arizona.
No internet access
Having seen numerous valuation appeals in his years on the SBOE, Sitterley said he doesn’t see anything that sets his case apart, and is at a loss as to why Staples wanted to be a named party. Sitterley said he even requested that Maricopa Superior Court remove the Assessor’s Office as a defendant in early August, an ultimately unsuccessful effort.
“I honestly, truthfully do not get it,” he said.
But Maratea thinks that a disagreement over Staples’ decision last summer to not make representatives of his office available during SBOE hearings might help explain the situation.
Rather than making a representative available in most cases, Staples submits evidence and other documentation of the case to the board — as well as making that information available online well in advance, according to Staples and Shook.
However, some board members, including Sitterley, think the change has made hearings more challenging.
“Without anybody there to ask, not every case, but I would say it comes up enough, that you say, ‘Gosh, I wish I could have asked someone about that,’” Sitterley said of the change’s impact.
“You can hear a lot of references to this on our tapes, almost every day, where we come to an impasse, ‘what do we do now?’” Maratea said. “The assessor isn’t here to explain this. We have to punt,”
But Staples said the decision wasn’t made lightly. He told the Star he has been asking for years to get internet access in the SBOE hearing rooms but has so far been unsuccessful. Without that access, he said, his employees can’t verify new information sometimes brought by petitioners.
“If they have access, we’ll attend the meetings,” he said.
Shook said he has been working on the internet access issue recently, and there are options for getting assessor representatives online during hearings, though the exact arrangement — and who will pay for it — has yet to be worked out. He disagreed that it’s a “deal-maker or deal-breaker,” adding that “they can do other things to answer questions.”
Shook is also writing up a survey for board members to gauge their concerns about the current hearing arrangement, the results of which he intends to give to Staples.
“Their frustration is getting to a higher degree every day,” Shook said of the Pima County SBOE members.
Maratea believes that Staples’ apparent effort to get involved in the Sitterley case was an act of retribution for criticizing the hearing policy, and that her SBOE colleague was “singled out.”
“I’m glad I’m not appealing my house right now,” she said.
Staples rejected claims of vengeance. “Who you are or what you do is going to have no bearing on our decisions. Period.”
After speaking with the Star, Staples sent a followup email stating his office intends to recommend a settlement of the Sitterley case based on an appraisal report to be produced by an independent, state-certified appraiser, the costs of which will be paid by his office. He estimated that they would be around $500.
Private attorney Terri Roberts, who regularly represents Staples on valuation appeals, has been hired to work on the Sitterley case. Staples said legal costs “shouldn’t be much but you never know.” He’s currently paying for them “out of pocket,” and intends to file claims with Pima County for reimbursement, though the cost will ultimately “come out of my office’s budget,” he wrote.
Last December the Star reported on Staples’ unusual practice of sometimes using his personal funds to pay attorneys working on appeal cases, and then filing notices of claim with the county.
Huckelberry said the Sitterley case is “so small” that he’s not concerned about the interests of both defendants — the county and Assessor’s Office — aligning.
“We’re going to sit back and let Bill spend the money, but it’s still taxpayers’ money,” he said.