TWIN FALLS — A few weeks ago, he spent his days running a construction company. Today, Twin Falls County Assessor Brad Wills is in a whole new role, focusing on finding a new formula to assess the county’s farm ground.
Filer farmer Ray Moore says property taxes on farm ground are too high; but it’s not the tax rate he’s disputing, it’s the value placed on farm ground by the county’s former assessor that has him riled.
Moore says the formula used by former-Assessor Gerald Bowden over-inflated land values by about $1,000 per acre. Moore and the Twin Falls County Farm Bureau is working with Wills to find a more realistic formula.
Idaho law outlines two methods to assess farmland, Wills said. One is a simple formula based on what the land would rent for annually. The other is a more complex formula based on a moving target: farm income minus production costs over time.
Bowden used the second, more complex method, which Moore says left many of the production costs out of the equation, resulting in higher assessments.
Wills agrees that the valuations are too high.
“We have to make it affordable to farm,” he said.
While agriculture is what drives Idaho’s economy, farm values are a small piece of the county tax rolls, Commissioner Terry Kramer said Tuesday.
The total land value in the county is about $4 billion, Kramer said. Of that, farm ground falls in the $600 million range.
Moore appealed his property assessment last summer to the County Board of Equalization — in this case, the county commissioners. Commissioners denied Moore’s claim because his assessment was not in error, Commissioner Terry Kramer said Tuesday.
But Moore’s appeal opened commissioners’ eyes to the real problem, Kramer said. His appeal is more of an indictment of the formula, not the valuation itself.
“Ray has brought this awareness that Twin Falls County farmland is valued differently than in surrounding counties,” said Kramer, who farms 350 acres of hay, grain and corn near Castleford.
Moore has now taken his claim to the state Board of Tax Appeals.
Property taxes are figured by multiplying the value of the property by the appropriate tax rate. The more valuable the land, the more a property owner pays in taxes: A farmer owning 100 acres worth $3,000 per acre pays 50 percent more taxes than the same-sized farm worth $2,000 per acre.
Ideally, Wills would like to see the county’s agricultural tax base stay in line with neighboring counties.
“Here’s the quandary,” Kramer said. “There are no specific regulations (as to assessment formulas), each assessor uses his own twist.”
In addition, Idaho allows a farm exemption, dramatically reducing taxes by assessing land value based on production instead of market value of the land, he said. In the end, farm ground that would sell for $7,000 per acre is assessed at an average of $2,800 for property tax purposes.
Agriculture is big business in Twin Falls County, where crops bring in nearly $600 million per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 farm census.
The goal, Wills said, is that similar farms raising similar crops would be assessed at similar values.
He knows he has his work cut out for him.
“I’m still getting my feet wet,” Wills said.
Meanwhile, Kramer is watching Moore’s appeal closely.