ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - Before she left office in December, former Bernalillo County Assessor Karen Montoya bungled hundreds of tax assessments and illegally fleeced property owners out of what could top a million dollars.
Now, the vast majority of those property owners have no recourse to get their money back and are stuck with the exorbitant tax bills for good, according to a four-month investigation by News 13’s Larry Barker.
“The result was unfortunate for these folks … and it resulted in a mistake and these people suffered,” said Randy Autio, Bernalillo county attorney. “We can’t go back into the past and change what occurred in 2010, 11 and 12.”
The illegal assessments affected about 1,400 properties in the county, all of which are multi-family properties such as duplexes or apartment buildings. Like single family, residential homes, tax increases on multi-family properties are capped at three percent a year, according to state law.
However, Montoya circumvented that three percent cap in 2010 by reclassifying multi-family properties in the county as commercial property. State law does not cap property tax increases on commercial property.
“People were beside themselves,” said Chuck Sheldon, president of the New Mexico Apartment Association. “There was no rhyme or reason for that to happen.”
Josephine and Mansfor Gonzales are two of the property owners affected by Montoya’s decision. The couple are both in their 90s and rely on social security and income from rental property to support them.
But three years ago, their tax bill skyrocketed 86 percent overnight from $2,553 a year to $4,433 a year.
“We get the bill, we pay it,” Mansfor Gonzales said. “You know how it is. Instead of protesting it, we just go ahead and pay it.”
Beatrice Tafoya lives in the same southwest Albuquerque home her parents built in 1937. She also didn’t question it when her tax bill shot from $694.98 a year to $1,516.54 – that’s more than double the original bill.
Thomas Potter has owned the same property in southeast Albuquerque for 30 years. He also merely paid the property tax bill in 2010 when it jumped 95 percent.
“You think everybody is doing stuff honestly, and you find out they are raising your property taxes like that,” Potter said. “It’s crazy.”
Sheldon said the bottom line is that Montoya hurt people through illegal means.
“It was in violation of the law,” he said. “It’s a heartbreaking issue that you are asking me (about) because these people have lost that money.”
Just two of the 1,400 taxpayers hit with illegal property tax bills protested them in court. In both cases, the judges ruled that Montoya had failed to follow the law and ordered her to roll back the taxes to the three percent limit on the two properties in question.
And while Montoya obeyed the judges’ orders, she ignored the rest of the properties she illegally raised taxes on, and left those owners with massively higher tax assessments.
“She should have rolled everybody back,” said Demesia Padilla, secretary of the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department. “That would have treated everybody equitably. That would have said, ‘I am agreeing with the courts that what I did was wrong. So let me roll everybody back.’ When she just picked and chose who she rolled back – that’s wrong.”
And those property owners who didn’t protest the new property assessments are now stuck with those tax bills for good. Moreover, the law doesn’t allow for refunds.
“Our statutes have a process for someone to protest their property values,” Padilla said. “And if they don’t do that, they are going to get hurt. Do I like that? I don’t like that that happens. But we have rules that have to be followed.”
Montoya was elected to the state Public Regulation Commission in November, so the problem she created is no longer her responsibility.
“You know, we have no claw-backs when you have government officials that make poor decisions,” Sheldon said. “So there’s no way to go back against them and say, ‘You made this poor decision, impacted these folks, you are going to pay for it.’ They leave office, they leave a mess and now you have to pick it up.”
Tanya Giddings, recently appointed county assessor, must now deal with the problem.
“It’s my responsibility to fix this,” she told News 13. “I am going to correct this problem. It is a priority of mine. It is a priority of my administration.”
Montoya admits she made a mistake. But, she says, state law prevented her from rolling back the improper taxes. Property owners impacted by this error need to contact the Bernalillo County Assessor's Office.
Giddings said her staff will work with property owners impacted by the mistake
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