NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – New Mexico’s annual budget is more than $7,000,000,000. So when a little-known state agency made a tiny mistake of just $1.74, nobody noticed.
Ground zero for this blunder is Northeast New Mexico’s Colfax County where Raton is the county seat. It was a slip-up that affected every residential property owner in the county. Earlier this year, homeowners there received the bad news. Property taxes had been miscalculated. More than 20,000 residents had been overcharged in 2019 and 2020. Today, Colfax County officials are scrambling to provide refunds.
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To understand how this happened, you need to head over to the State Capital. What goes on inside a large Santa Fe government office building impacts every property owner in New Mexico. The Local Government Division of the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration is responsible for calculating the property tax rate (also known as the ‘mill’ rate) for each of New Mexico’s 33 counties. Each county’s property tax rate is the basis for all property taxes assessed in the state. If a county’s property tax rate is wrong then all of that county’s property taxes will be wrong.
That’s what happened to Colfax County. Someone at New Mexico’s Department of Finance and Administration in Santa Fe miscalculated the county’s property tax rate. As a result, all of the residential property owners there were overcharged.
“It was a human error,” says DFA Local Government Division Director Donnie Quintana. “(The mistake) was over two tax years because it carried over from tax year 2019 to 2020. So that’s about $1.3 million over the last two years that was collected erroneously by Colfax County,” Quintana says.
“My first reaction is we’re going to do what we need to do to pay it back,” Colfax County Commissioner Bobbie LeDoux said. “Any time you pass a tax onto the public that shouldn’t have been passed on then it becomes a big deal, especially to me,” Commissioner LeDoux says.
Some 23,000 Colfax County homeowners are owed refunds, from Angel Fire to Cimmaron, Springer to Raton. “This was huge. I’ve never seen anything like this happen,” Colfax County Treasurer Lydia Garcia says. Garcia is saddled with the responsibility of making refunds to county residents.
“This was a lot of work and it does fall on me because we had to give the reimbursement. It’s just a big error. Our work isn’t over with,” Garcia says.
The New Mexico Department of Finance accepts responsibility for making the mistake. However, Colfax County officials also bear some of the blame. Under state law, each county is required to verify property tax assessments for accuracy before issuing tax notices. Local Government Division Director Donnie Quintana says that didn’t happen in Colfax County.
(Double-checking property tax calculations) provides a good safeguard, if you will, to ensure that when taxpayers are assessed that it’s been looked at at the state level and it’s been checked and confirmed at the local level,” Quintana says.
“The Assessor and the County Manager should have been checking that… That didn’t happen,” Colfax County Commissioner LeDoux says.
What does Colfax County Assessor Kristi Graham have to say? We don’t know. She refused repeated requests for an interview. And, she would not meet with KRQE News 13 when we paid her a visit at her Colfax County Courthouse office last week. Her assistant said Graham was tied up on a phone call for “several hours.”
Meanwhile, back in Santa Fe, Donnie Quintana says the Local Government Division hasn’t made a mistake like this in some 14 years. “We’re very apologetic to the residents of Colfax County that this even took place. This just proves that every calculation, even as minor as a $1.74, is impactful when New Mexico constituents are impacted with it,” Quintana says.
“We’re lucky that it got caught and that it didn’t go on for more years. It went on for two years and that was two years too long,” Colfax County Commissioner Bobbie LeDoux says.
“This was big. I hope this never happens again,” Colfax County Treasurer Lydia Garcia said.