A SWEET DEAL

NEED A TAX BREAK FOR THE NEW YEAR? CONSIDER RAISING BEES, DONKEYS, HAY OR, AS A LAST RESORT, A STINK WITH THE COUNTY ASSESSOR.TO BEE OR NOT TO BEE? FOR A SUCCESSFUL DEVELOPER SEEKING A TAX BREAK, THAT'S NO QUESTION. BUT TAXPAYERS GET STUNG.

"It's not about revenue," Pettit stresses. "It's that we're sick of hearing neighbors complain that their neighbor has a tax break and they can't get it."

Even more grating to assessors is that such inequity can be a subsidy for those who don't need it. The $160,000 Vickers shaved off his property-tax bill must now be made up by everyone else in Douglas County.

Three years ago legislative researchers calculated that if the agricultural tax breaks were reformed, statewide land valuation would increase by $122 million--money that would go a long way in offsetting everyone else's tax bills. But such attempts to change, or at least tighten, the laws originally intended to give bona fide farmers and ranchers a break have routinely crashed. "Every year for the past seven or eight years, there have been proposals to tighten up the laws," says Pettit, who has been Jeffco's assessor for nearly fifteen years. "Every year it fails." Farmers and ranchers themselves can't agree on how to amend the law. Two years ago, for instance, members of the state House of Representatives proposed a law that would have required landowners seeking the agricultural tax break to prove they earned at least $1,000 a year if they had a twenty-acre or larger farm or an eighty-acre or larger ranch (as is required in Nebraska and Oregon). To supporters--the ranching association--the figure seemed reasonable.

"When I was twelve years old and in 4-H, I could guarantee a $1,000 profit," says Brown. "It's just not that hard." The powerful Colorado Farm Bureau disagreed, however, and the bill died.

Last year, state senator Joan Johnson, who represents Adams County, tried again. She proposed a bill that would have required that at least the land on farms and ranches not used for agriculture be assessed at market value (as it is in Arizona and Kansas). "The last time I looked, you couldn't grow anything under a house or a swimming pool," she points out.

This time the farm bureau signed on and the ranchers didn't. The bill withered.

Even the governor has tried to tackle the problem. Several months ago Governor Roy Romer's Smart Growth and Development initiative recommended overhauling the agricultural tax breaks to cut out the undeserving. The plan suggests that landowners meet minimum income or acreage levels to earn the tax break.

Until recently, there seemed a small chance that there might be agreement. Last spring representatives of the farm bureau, the cattlemen's association, the state Department of Agriculture and the assessors' association began meeting to come up with a solution. Two months ago their attempts fell apart. "So I'm not sure anything's going to happen in the legislature this year," sighs Johnson.

Which, in a way, is good news. It appears the loose laws will remain on the books for at least another year--which means now is the time for action. Because everyone is entitled to an equal shot at tax breaks, here's a handy guide to obtaining your own:

Make Hay, or Pay Someone to Do It
"To me, hay is the cheapest way to go," says Jeffco's Pettit. "There're no fences, no vet bills--it's very low-cost."

The state laws guiding tax assessors as to who is and who isn't a wheat farmer are delightfully vague. The law doesn't say how much wheat you must raise or how much money you must earn. You don't even have to cut it yourself. Just ask Dwight Griggs.

Griggs owns eight acres on Simms Avenue in Arvada on which he raises some wheat. Although the land had been classified as agricultural for years, in 1992 the Jefferson County assessor reconsidered and deemed it residential. The assessed value jumped from less than $5,000 to what the county considered market cost, around $58,000.

Griggs appealed to the county Board of Equalization, which upheld the assessor. He appealed again to the next level, the state Board of Assessment Appeals.

In making their case against Griggs, Jeffco officials contended that he had no intention of growing wheat to make money. "We calculated that Mr. Griggs's profit is $249.20 per year, less any expenses he might have for seed or fertilizer," the assessor argued. "His tax savings from an agricultural tax classification would be $575, leading us to conclude that the primary purpose of the hay cutting is the tax savings."

The assessor pointed out that Griggs didn't even harvest his own seven acres of hay--he paid someone else to do it, at twice the going price. No matter. In 1993 the state appeals board sided with Griggs. Today his land is assessed at a low $4,880.

"It used to be, farmers were farmers and ranchers were ranchers," says John Mikus, a longtime appraiser for Jefferson County. "Now you got doctors claiming they're farmers and lawyers saying they're ranchers. I mean, this law was intended to give a break to farmers and ranchers who raise food and fiber for the population, not people who raise polo ponies."

Raise Polo Ponies
"The way we found out about this," begins Tom McNish, an assistant Douglas County attorney, "is that the assessor's staff noticed polo matches taking place on the property. Also, the grass is not your typical ranching/grazing grass. I think it's a Kentucky bluegrass/fescue mix."

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