On March 8, 2013, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed into law House Bill 13-1113.  The legislation creates a pilot program that authorizes the governing body of the city and county of Denver, at the request of the Assessor, to elect an alternative protest and appeal procedure for property tax disputes.  The pilot program aims to simplify the existing appeal procedure by providing for a single appeal and extending the amount of time taxpayers have to file their appeals.  The program, which could become the default framework in Colorado if it is deemed successful, is effective until December 31, 2018.

Current procedure: short timeframes, many appeals

Under the current Colorado property tax regime, the assessor mails each real property taxpayer a valuation notice no later than May 1.  To preserve the right to protest the valuation, the taxpayer must file its protest with the assessor no later than June 1.  Personal property valuation notices must be mailed by June 15, and taxpayers have only until June 30 to file an appeal.  Failure to appeal by the deadlines results in the loss of the taxpayer’s right to object to and protest the valuation.

The assessor must issue a determination by the end of June for real property or July 10 for personal property.  Any taxpayer whose protest has been refused or denied by the assessor then files a petition with the county Board of Equalization.  This petition must be filed by July 15 for real property or July 30 for personal property.  The Board of Equalization will hold a hearing at which the taxpayer and assessor present evidence, and the Board must issue its decision by August 5.  If the taxpayer is not satisfied with the Board of Equalization’s decision, the taxpayer may appeal to the Board of Assessment Appeals or the county District Court within 30 days.

The time frames under this procedure are very short.  A taxpayer must act quickly to file appeals at every step, or risk having the right to appeal denied.  A taxpayer must also keep track of which government body is hearing the appeal at that particular moment.

To complicate matters further, taxpayers have another route to appeal property tax assessments.  The Board of County Commissioners also receives and hears appeal petitions and has jurisdiction over petitions for abatement or refund of taxes, including in circumstances where the taxpayer believes that the property has been overvalued.  Petitions must be filed within two years after the January 1 following the year of levy.  Taxpayers can appeal directly to the Board of Assessment Appeals.  It should be noted, however, that taxpayers cannot take both routes; if the taxpayer appeals to the assessor, then the taxpayer cannot also appeal to the Board of County Commissioners.

The first alternate: room for counties to breathe

Some Colorado counties found the procedure exhausting.  County boards had to issue many decisions, sometimes in less than a week.  To resolve this problem for more populated counties, in 1998 the legislature offered counties the option to extend the deadlines.  The alternate program originally applied only to Boulder, El Paso, and Jefferson counties, as well as the city and county of Denver, but it was expanded to all counties in 2005.

Under the alternate program, the governing body of each county has the option to elect more time for the county to act.  Although the deadlines were extended, the government boards involved remained the same: the Assessor has to issue his or her decision by the end of August rather than mid-July; taxpayers have to appeal to the Board of Equalization by September 15; and the Board of Equalization has to issue its decision by November 1.

This procedure, used by some counties today, gives counties more time to decide taxpayer protests, but taxpayers have the same limited appeal windows, and they still have to deal with a who’s-who of county government.

The pilot program: one appeal to one board

The pilot program signed into law by the Governor combines the multiple steps in the annual valuation dispute process into a single hearing and appeal process conducted by the Board of County Commissioners.

Under the pilot program, the assessor still mails each real property taxpayer a valuation notice no later than May 1.  Personal property valuation notices must be mailed by July 15 (rather than June 15).  If a taxpayer believes that its property has been overvalued, that its property is exempt, or that the assessment is otherwise erroneous, the taxpayer must file its protest with the Board of County Commissioners no later than November 15.

The Board of County Commissioners cannot issue a decision on an appeal unless a hearing is held on the appeal (except in cases where the assessor settles with the taxpayer).  The Board may appoint independent referees who are experienced in property valuation to conduct hearings on behalf of the Board, and the Board may also hold hearings itself.  Every taxpayer must be given the opportunity to be present at a hearing, but if the Board requests that the taxpayer or the taxpayer’s representative be present at the hearing and the person fails to be present, the Board must dismiss the protest, and the taxpayer does not have the right to appeal the dismissal.

The Board of County Commissioners is required to act on each protest within six months of the date that the taxpayer files its protest.  However, if the Board does not issue a written decision on a protest before December 1, the protest is deemed a petition for abatement or refund.  The taxpayer then has the option to appeal to either the Board of Assessment Appeals or the Denver district court within 30 days.

Whether the city and county of Denver will elect to use the pilot alternate protest procedure is to be seen.  To use the procedure this year, Denver’s city council must elect to do so by May 1.  If the procedure is deemed a success, the program could spread to the rest of the state, and taxpayers throughout Colorado may find the assessment appeal process a bit less taxing.