Al Kohnle, the property assessor in the tiny town of Carlton in Kewaunee County, admits he was “not qualified to do that big of a job.”
The job concerned the Kewaunee Power Station, a nuclear plant on Lake Michigan, just south of Green Bay. When the plant was operational, it paid a utility tax to the state, which then made payments to the county and town. When it closed last May, the town had to come up with an assessed value.
So Kohnle tapped Gillott Appraisal Services of North Carolina. Based on its findings, he assessed the plant at $502 million.
Dominion, the plant’s Virginia-based owner, challenged this assessment. Kohnle says Dominion put the value at under $10 million. He says this was never backed by any appraisal, adding “There is no appraiser in the United States that would put in an amount of $10 million for that plant.”
Dominion spokesman Mark Kanz disputes the town’s assessment, noting that it paid just $219 million for the plant in 2005. He said in an interview that he needed to check with company officials before responding to other questions, but then did not respond.
Kohnle says Dominion failed to follow the established process for challenging an assessment. No agreement was reached before Aug. 15, the state’s statutory deadline for recording equalized property values, and the state Department of Revenue certified the $502 million figure.
In the past, the state has refused to accept changes past Aug. 15, which could affect taxes in multiple jurisdictions. It even held firm in 2006 when a state employee accidentally recorded a $5.9 million increase in a Dane County town’s property values as $53 million. This caused a sharp spike in some property taxes that was not fixed until the following year, as the law prescribes.
Carlton Town Chairman David Hardtke says Dominion continued to push for a reduction, warning that it could “bankrupt the town” — one of the questions to which Kanz did not respond. On Aug. 25, the town Board of Review agreed to accept a valuation of about $10 million, $492 million less than what it had submitted.
A state DOR official told Fox 11 in Green Bay that this re-certification was likely a first in the agency’s history. DOR said it acted “to avoid adverse impacts on taxpayers.” If the $502 million figure were allowed to stand and later successfully challenged, town residents might get socked with huge tax bills to repay the overcharge.
But a DOR employee who has worked in the division that oversees property tax assessments shares the concerns of town officials who say the DOR’s move was not legal.
“There is no statutory authority for the department to have done what it did,” says the employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because “my job would be over” otherwise. The worker worries about the precedent being set: “Going forward, it’s going to be very hard for the department to say, ‘We don’t do that.'”
City of Madison Assessor Mark Hanson, a board member of the Wisconsin Association of Assessing Officers, thinks the DOR may have been trying to do the right thing to avoid problems down the line. However, he notes of its action, “I can’t do that. I have to hold people to certain deadlines that are in the statutes.”
DOR spokeswoman Nicole Anspach, in an email, said the agency considered the matter “an extraordinary circumstance.” She noted that town and county officials asked DOR to amend the plant’s equalized value, but sidestepped requests to specify its legal authority for doing so past Aug. 15.
State records show that Dominion’s political action committee gave $5,000 to Republican Gov. Scott Walker in January, its largest contribution in recent years.
Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick declined to say whether Walker or his office was involved in the matter, deferring to the DOR, which did not respond to questions on this point.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight.