BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County Assessor Ken Milder has been sued in his official capacity in First Judicial District Court by a Los Alamos couple seeking a refund of property taxes paid in calendar year 2021. Gregory and Tanya Holland are represented by local attorney Philip Dabney and the case is before Judge Bryan Biedscheid. Judge Jason Lidyard was excused at the request of County Attorney Alvin Leaphart.
The Hollands purchased a property in January 2019 in an “arm’s length transaction” for $465,000. They believe that there is a statutory limitation on increases in the valuation of residential property provided in state law. The suit states that the Assessor’s Office initially assessed the property after the purchase at $620,000. Then in 2020, the Assessor’s Office voluntarily revised the 2020 assessment to $472,000 and refunded the excessive taxes collected based on the excessive amount. The Hollands believe the original assessment after purchase should then be $472,000.
In 2021, the Assessor’s Office reassessed the property at $650,000 when the Hollands claim that following the state statute is should have capped at or about $486,160. The suit says that no physical improvements were done to the property other than replacing the roof and internal decorating, which they believe are ordinary maintenance and would not justify the County avoiding or ignoring the statutory cap. The Hollands believe the assessment resulted in an improper overpayment of taxes in an amount exceeding $1,200. They paid $5,119.98 in 2021 and are current.
The suit asks the Court to determine that the Assessor’s Office failed to cap the assessment and asks for a refund of the excess taxes paid because of the over-assessment. They are seeking reasonable attorney fees and court costs.
The County’s response to the complaint notes that the Hollands made all their property tax payments prior to the date they would have become delinquent but denies that they are entitled to a refund.
The County asked the Court to dismiss the Hollands’ claims with prejudice and grant further relief as the Court deems proper. On March 29, the County filed a motion for partial judgment saying there were no facts in the suit that that would entitle the Hollands to attorney fees and court costs. The motion states that in New Mexico, parties are responsible for their own attorney fees because New Mexico follows the American Rule, which states that in the absence of statutes, Court rule or contractual agreement, the prevailing party will not normally receive attorney fees. The County stated that even if the Hollands were to prevail they would only be entitled to the refund plus the prorated share of interest earned by the refunded taxes.
The Hollands responded that the County is premature in asking for the partial judgment because there are avenues through which they can receive their costs. Attorney fees may be recovered against state litigants where they have advanced bad faith litigation. Also, the Court may impose sanctions against a public entity.
Judge Biescheid denied the County’s motion because there are some possible scenarios where attorney fees may be awarded in the case.
Another suit filed against Assessor Milder by Canyon Walk Housing, LLC, was settled in late June with a stipulated order by First Judicial District Judge Matthew J. Wilson. In that case, Canyon Walk, represented by Douglas S. John of Frazer Ryan Goldberg & Arnold, received a refund of $17,805.90 with interest.
The Assessor’s Office had assessed the Canyon Walk improved land and structure for the tax year 2021 t a full value of $4,418,820 with a taxable assessed value of $1,506,270. Under the agreement reached by the parties, the correct value for assessment for 2021 is $2,300,200 which was derived from 53 percent Completion Factor based on a Market Value of $4,340,000 for 2021. This resulted in a $17,806 refund to Canyon Walk. Under the stipulated order, no liability or fault is admitted by the County.