Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

2022 Assessment Process Could Be Chaotic

Top staffers departing, number of 2020 appeals still pending, hot real estate market, no assessments in 2021.

By - Oct 4th, 2021 09:11 pm
Homes on S. Lenox St. in Bay View. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Homes on S. Lenox St. in Bay View. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Next time you appeal the property tax assessment on your home, make sure to address it to the Award-Winning City of Milwaukee Assessor’s Office.

The department was given a Certificate of Excellence in Assessment Administration award by the International Association of Assessing Officers this summer.

“No other jurisdiction in Wisconsin has ever qualified,” said Commissioner Steve Miner.

And if things go as expected, lots of people are going to be mailing the office in 2022. The real estate market remains red hot and for the first time since 2002, Milwaukee has gone a year without a citywide reassessment. People are likely to be in for a shock when their new home value arrives.

Miner presented his organization’s proposed $4.5 million 2022 budget to the Common Council’s Finance & Personnel Committee on Monday. He would like it to include more money for staffing in order to deal with a surging number of transactions and assessment appeals.

“The current staffing level has made it difficult to maintain this high level of service,” he said. “Turnovers and vacancies have prevented us from maintaining our normal workload.” The bulk of the turnover occurs at the mid-level ranks when assessors experience an increased workload and can find higher-paying jobs at other private and public employers.

And more turnover is on the way in two new sources.

The city’s vaccine mandate, which goes into force at the end of the month, is expected to result in resignations. “We have I think three, four people that will be leaving because of that,” said Miner. That would represent 10% of the office’s 35 current staff members.

The top two positions are also going to turn over.

Chief assessor Peter Bronek retired on Sept. 10. Miner, a mayoral appointee, also would like to retire. He would have already but he wanted to accept the award, and Bronek’s retirement introduced another delay.

He’s now hoping to retire in January. “I might stay a little longer depending on how the process plays out,” he said. “I don’t want to leave the city in a bad spot.”

“Nor do I,” said committee chair Alderman Michael Murphy.

The alderman asked if the city should skip doing a citywide reassessment in 2022, given the departures and the fact that a hot real estate market will trigger thousands of appeals.

“I think that would be a mistake,” Miner responded.

He expressed confidence in the team that will lead the process. “They are well on their way to having that complete,” he said.

But there is plenty of other work to go around for an office with an authorized staff of 47 full-time equivalent employees. Miner said that the office saw the highest number of property transactions in its history in August, resulting in a need to update many records and comparable properties.

The office is also still dealing with the record number of appeals that came from the 2020 assessment process. A total of 500 cases are still pending before the Board of Review, a mayoral-appointed body that hears from both property owners and the assessor. There were 6,665 objections in 2020 and 981 in 2021.

“The volume that occurred in 2020 was significantly higher than typical,” said Miner in a May interview. Going back to 2013, the highest one-year total was 2,512.

A variety of factors triggered that spike. A hot real estate market is driving values upward in many city neighborhoods, including Bay View and Harambee. The letters with new values were also mailed during the Safer at Home period in 2020, when people spending more time at home and potentially worried about financial issues. Due to the pandemic, the Board of Review doubled the length of time people had to appeal.

The calculations were also made using a new software platform that replaced a system the city had developed in house starting in the 1980s. “The software works really well, but it really is sensitive to what data we have,” said Miner in May of the Patriot Properties’ product. “What we found a lot of times last year during open book was a lot of the data we had didn’t match what was actual.”

The assessment process does not raise revenue for the city, but instead is designed as an equitable way to divvy up the share of the state-capped property tax levy. A rising property tax bill is almost entirely the result of declining property values elsewhere.

Technology To The Rescue

A series of slides shown by Miner Monday showed that a number of long-term projects are close to going live.

The most significant is the digitalization of property records, including building sketches. Assessor’s currently must visit properties in person and can do up to 20 per day. The new system, required by the state Department of Revenue almost a decade ago, would allow a “desktop review” of properties from computers. Miner said assessors, based on other department’s experience, could then review 150 to 200 properties per day. That system is expected to be online in the first quarter of 2022.

Before that comes online, the city will also have new exterior images of every property. A crew from Cyclomedia has driven the entire city, including alleys, and taken a 360-degree photo every five meters. It will be the first time the Assessor’s Office, and other city departments, have high-resolution images of every property. “The new images will be available on the website soon,” said Miner.

The commissioner said the project cost about $460,000. “It’s just a wonderful tool that departments throughout the city can use,” Miner said in May. The photos are expected to expedite assessments of the condition of structures among other advantages.

Another project is likely to increase the number of appeals. For the first time, property owners will be able to appeal their assessments online. Previously they needed to get a form from the office. Requested by the council, that project is scheduled for completion in the fourth quarter of 2021.

But another project that will launch in late 2021 or early 2022 is expected to reduce appeals. Known as “Comper” it will publicly show the comparable properties used to generate an assessment.

The department’s website is also being redesigned, with a late 2021 expected release.

Budget director Dennis Yaccarino said the administration is trying to support the office with technology upgrades.

And while turnover has beset the Assessor’s Office and many other city departments, Miner was quick to praise the assistance he has received from the beleaguered City Attorney’s Office.

“Potential liability has dropped to the lowest level in several years,” said Miner of the assessment cases, largely commercial, that are rejected by the Board of Review, but contested in court. Thirty-three cases totaling $12.5 million in claims are pending, with only one case of more than $1 million. “This is directly related to working relationship with the City Attorney’s Office. [Assistant city attorneys] Allison Flanagan and Hannah Jahn have been excellent partners.”

Miner has served as the assessment commissioner since 2015, having joined the department as chief assessor in 2014. He previously held the same role in the City of Wauwatosa.

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