Two nearly identical Victorian-style office buildings sit in old downtown Parker, like gingerbread houses crafted from the same mold. They share a parking lot. One's address is on Pike's Peak Drive, the other on Pike's Peak Court. One is dusty pink, the other is baby blue. But according to the Douglas County assessor, one is worth $169,747 more than its twin.
Susan and Sam Demander own the more highly valued blue building, which was built in 2002; Marilyn Scheffel owns the pink building, which was built in 2001.
When the Demanders received their tax assessment in 2003, they decided to check it against their neighbor's. They were unpleasantly surprised by what they found: Their property was valued higher and, therefore, they had to pay an additional $3,000 more in taxes than Scheffel did. "I guess I was thinking that there was some sort of mistake," Susan Demander says.
Like 5,000 other people concerned about their valuations in Douglas County that year, the Demanders filed a protest with the county and went before a referee, who told them the discrepancy was probably too large and lessened the gap. He didn't completely equalize the two properties, however, because county records indicated that the Demanders had a finished basement, while Scheffel did not. In what was, until recently, the country's fastest-growing community, commercial properties are assessed using the income approach, which bases value on the amount of rentable square footage. And since the Demanders clearly had more rentable square footage, they were satisfied.
At least at the time.
In 2004, the pink building underwent a basement refinishing that created more rentable space. So when the Demanders got their annual valuation papers this spring and discovered that their property appraisal had increased in value by about $38,000, they double-checked the information for the pink house, assuming the assessment would be balanced. Not so: The other building's value actually decreased by about $26,000.
"When I looked at theirs online and saw that theirs had gone down, I knew something was up," Demander says.
Even stranger was the situation involving the shared parking lot: In 2003, each half of the blacktop was worth the same amount; in 2005, the Demander's half was worth about $9,000 more than Scheffel's portion.
The first thing Demander did was to call Douglas County commercial assessor Sherri Heydt, who told her the assessor's office was not aware of the basement remodeling because they had never received any building permits, and that such documents are the primary method by which they track changes in value. But Heydt assured Demander that she'd look into the matter.
In the meantime, Susan Demander filed another protest with the county. Then she waited. When she logged on to the assessor's website about a week after filing the protest, she saw that her property's value had been decreased by about $25,000. However, Scheffel's value stayed the same, leaving a discrepancy of approximately $170,000.
Demander called Heydt again. "She explained to me that because [Scheffel] didn't return their calls, she didn't have access to the building and couldn't verify that the basement had been finished," Demander says. This meant that the values for both properties would remain the same until the next assessment, in 2007, and that the Demanders would pay $4,425.39 more per year than Scheffel.
"I was pissed," Susan says. "It just wasn't right. I am a woman of principle. That is clichéd, but if you ask anyone who knows me, this kind of stuff just rankles me big-time, whether it has to do with me personally or not."
At that point, the Demanders felt only one explanation was possible: political favoritism. Douglas County assessor Nikki Hoy is a Republican, and Scheffel's son, Mark, is the chairman of the Douglas County Republican Party. "It's kind of shocking that we're all just regular citizens, Joe Citizen, going along with our lives, and behind the scenes these people who have connections seem to be getting pretty substantial preferential treatment," Demander says.
Hoy denies those allegations: "I don't want any perception out there that there's any priorities that I take with anybody, whether they're friends, relatives or political people," she says. She still isn't sure why the two similar properties had such different assessed values, but she assumes it has something to do with the basement. "The building permit is our notice that some additional work is going on with the property, and that's how we pick up that information. Since we have no permit, we don't know if it's 80 percent finished, half finished, or 100 percent finished," she says.
Mark Scheffel says his mother filed all of the proper permitting paperwork for the basement improvement, and he calls the accusations of political hobnobbing "an insult" and "absurd," adding that the Douglas County Assessor's Office has "the highest degree of professionalism and integrity. The lines are very, very clear. I respect them. I know my mother and my family respect them. And it would be foolish to mess with public record.
"Nikki Hoy's not even running for re-election," he adds.
Scheffel also believes the two properties are significantly different, even though they were built by the same developer. Because his mother's structure was erected before the blue model, he says, "They fixed a lot of the bugs." In particular, the stairwells were reconfigured, which resulted in about 170 extra square feet of space for the Demanders.
But Hoy's office maintains that the discrepancy is due to the finished basement, not differences in floor plan. And despite Mark Scheffel's assurances that his mother filed the building permits, Hoy's office continually told Demander that they had no such record. If such a document existed, it would been added to their records in January of this year. Normally, the Parker Building Division mails the Douglas County Assessor's Office a stack of permits each month; Marilyn Scheffel's would have been included in November 2004.
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Last week, after Westword called the Parker Building Division and asked about it, the permit appeared; however, none of the officials can explain why two halves of the same parking lot are valued differently.
"Believe me, if I had known about this before the notices went out, you bet we would have picked up and fixed it," Hoy says.
But Susan Demander isn't getting her hopes up. "I'm not really convinced that anything is going to happen," she says. "I guess I'm kind of taking the wait-and-see attitude."