Officials seek stiffer penalties for tax cheats

SANDPOINT — Bonner County is gathering legal input on recouping lost revenue caused by property tax scofflaws.

It’s also pondering ways to make it harder for landowners to escape inclusion on the county’s tax rolls.

Property tax dodging is hardly a new phenomena in the county, although there are signs that the problem is on the upswing.

County Planning Director Clare Marley told commissioners on Tuesday that so far this year building location permits and building violations are at a one-to-one ratio. There were 47 permits and 47 violations.

“We had as many building violations as we had building permits. It’s rather striking,” said Marley.

Marley said the Planning & Zoning Commission asked her to investigate building location permit compliance after the advisory board began seeing a number of after-the-fact variance requests.

“We had something in the neighborhood of a dozen variances, which is higher than usual and a number of them were after the fact,” said Marley.

The Planning Department is scheduled to present its permit compliance  findings to P&Z on Thursday.

In the meantime, Assessor Jerry Clemons is consulting with the county’s legal counsel to see if state law enables the county to retroactively collect more of the taxes it was owed by a scofflaw.

“We should be able to. It’s not fair for somebody not to pay their taxes when everybody else is paying,” said Clemons.

In one instance, county officials discovered a home that had escaped property taxes for an entire decade. During that time, the county — or any other taxing district the home was located in — did not collect one thin dime.

However, Idaho Code appears to limit the amount of such unpaid taxes the county can collect.

If a landowner fails to report their property is ready for occupancy, the assessor can go to county commissioners, who act as the county’s board of property tax equalization, and impose a penalty of an additional amount equal to 5 percent of the tax for each month following the date of first occupancy during which the report is not made.

But state law caps the penalty at 25 percent.

Marley said scofflaws can also be given a misdemeanor fine or made to pay an $85 fee to cover her department’s investigative costs.

But Marley and Clemons doubt such penalties have a meaningful deterrent effect.

“We have to have more teeth in those laws,” said Clemons.

Prior to the elimination of the county’s building department in the mid-1990s, landowners were required obtain an energizing permit to prove they were included on tax rolls before a utility could service a property.

“Nowadays, our ordinance just says that the service utility has to see proof that the individual got their building permit,” said Marley.

Gauging the extent of the problem is difficult due to its nature. Even with aerial photography and other resources, it can still be difficult to locate a bootleg structure in remote and rugged portions of the county.

“It’s a number I couldn’t even put my hand on,” Marley said.

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