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County rejects tax abatement claims from major Dickinson property owners

Chairman Jay Elkin agreed with Hirschfeld's tax assessments during Tuesday's abatement hearings. (Grady McGregor / The Dickinson Press)

The Stark County Commission unanimously rejected a wave of tax abatement claims on Tuesday from several major property owners in the Dickinson area including Walmart, large apartment complexes and several other hotels and businesses.

It follows an earlier decision by the Dickinson City Commission.

The main issue was whether Dickinson Tax Assessor Joe Hirschfeld overvalued the Dickinson properties and is levying unfairly high taxes against them.

Tax law attorney Kendrick Olson, representing several of the companies involved in the tax abatement cases, traded arguments for several hours with Hirschfeld at the meeting.

Olson argued that Hirschfeld's assessments chronically overvalued properties in Dickinson in 2015 and 2016, claiming that Hirschfeld and the city did not account for the sharp downturn in oil and property prices in Dickinson during those years.

Hirschfeld argued that his assessments were fair given the data he was provided and the property value assessment process that he has been directed to follow by the state. Hirschfeld also said that he worked with many of the property owners to reach the initial assessments years ago, even though they are now claiming through a formal abatement process that the assessments were wrong.

"The ignorance of the process is upsetting to me. This board has gone through the valuations with me for three years," Hirschfeld said. "We heard these appeals on the city, county and state level and here we are 30 months down the road and now we are supposed to change them?"

Olson responded that Hirschfeld, as well as the city and county commissions, were ignoring independent appraisals conducted by a reputable firm.

"There's a reason why you are seeing a jump in abatements in the last few years, people are feeling (the taxes) and they are not getting a response from their government," Olson said. "The information we present is discarded, and it's very frustrating."

Stark County Attorney Tom Henning remarked that he was frustrated that many of these property owners agreed to assessments years ago, only to now claim that they were overassessed by Hirschfeld.

"I am somewhat aghast at this, but apparently it's permissible by law, I think the owners are playing with fire here," Henning said.

In relation to Walmart's tax abatement claim, Hirschfeld and Olson argued over the proper way to assess big-box retail stores. Olson said that Walmart's valuation was far too high in 2015 and 2016 when considering the price that other big-box retail stores had sold for in other locations in the Midwest. Hirschfeld claimed that Olson was using a discredited 'dark store' argument, in which he picked out the selling prices of unsuccessful outlets to argue for a lower property value of Dickinson's Walmart.

Hirschfeld and Olson also argued over the correct approach in making assessments. Olson argued that the assessments he provided from an independent appraiser were being ignored and that Hirschfeld wasn't considering an obvious drop in oil production and consequent ability to garner income from the properties. Hirschfeld said that many properties do not disclose income to the city and also that his assessments follow a set of procedural guidelines set out by the state.

Now that the claims have been denied by Stark County, the cases will need to be appealed to the North Dakota court system if the property owners still wish to pursue abatement.

The properties that the county denied claims for on Tuesday include:

• Walmart

• Astoria Hotel and Suites

• Best Western

• Motel 6

• Friedman Integrated Apartments

• J&O Real Estate (Mike Street Apartments)

• 1785 1st St. W Retail

Other business at the Stark County commission meeting included:

• The commission announced that the Stark County Recorder position will open at the end of December and they are considering changing the job from an elected position to an appointed position. Commissioners claimed that certain expertise is necessary to keep up with modern demands of the job and that interviewing for the position could be valuable. The commission agreed to hold at least two public hearings about the potential change in upcoming meetings.

• Carla Arthaud lodged further complaints against the Stark County Weed Control Board, claiming that board meetings are not transparent enough and often sparsely attended even by board members themselves.

• Rod Cockeram of Scull Construction reported to the commission that construction on the courthouse will be complete by Dec. 31.

Grady McGregor

Grady McGregor is a city and state politics reporter for The Dickinson Press. He joined The Press in July 2017.

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