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"The first thing that came to my mind is, 'Somebody's got his eye on this property,'" he says. "There's a little old lady who owns it and a bunch of hippies in the back.'"
More likely it was merely bureaucratic obfuscation and buck-passing, but he found it far beyond his experience as an artist.
In April, an appraiser from the Assessor's Office came to make a field check. "She measured the square footage and made a big drawing and assessed us on what it would cost to build that building today," says Coplin. The $10 million was indeed a mistake (though it still shows up on some government microfiche records), but the $492,058, which would raise the taxes from last year's $5,100 to about $7,500, stood.
"They assess these old buildings on what it would cost to build them today," Coplin rants. "You can't build a building that old today. That old adobe up front would cost $10," and then you'd have to hire wino builders to get the dilapidated effect.
As Coplin pored over the public records, he found that the improvements to Leegate's land were valued at $245,492, while the land was valued at $246,566. He noticed that an identical-size lot two doors west on Apache Trail had a land value of $120,748, half as much as the art colony, and, armed with that information, he sat through a Board of Equalization hearing on May 4, an event he describes as "bureaucratic beauty."
"Do I see a mistake here?" the appointed equalizer asked him. "Yes," Coplin answered enthusiastically, "a big mistake." And although the equalizer admitted the $10 million gaffe, the rest of the price stood, because there was no way to compare it to any other property. The equalizer's hands were tied. The good news, Coplin was told, was that he could appeal that decision to the Board of Tax Appeals.
And so it went. The assessor and the equalizer passed the buck to the state Department of Revenue, which set the value of improvements, and the county assessor's Land Division, which set the land value.
DOR claims that Leegate's art-supply store had never been on the tax rolls--even though it was built in 1967 and was the only building in the complex that was visible from the road. The "escaped improvement" was discovered in a recent recanvassing of the area, which, by itself, bumped the value up by $89,000. The county Land Division had not overlooked the store, however; that agency set the land value at $246,566, claiming it is a commercial property. The neighboring lot of identical measurements, however, was worth half as much, because it is a "multiuse residential" property and not commercial--even though a landscaping business and a hair salon are on the premises.
Coplin appealed the recalcitrant tax figure. On June 6, a second county field assessor stalked the grounds, measuring this and inquiring about that; he was "a frightening little man," Coplin says, "only because of his efficiency." Coplin mentioned the neighboring property and its value. "Apples and oranges," snapped the assessor. Kit Leegate followed behind, worriedly repeating, "It's because I'm a woman."
But, miraculously, when all columns were tabulated, the assessor came up with a new property value of $346,413, a decrease of $145,000.
Four days later, Coplin met with the state Board of Tax Appeals in Phoenix. "I looked up at two very distinguished judges," he says. "They were up high and I was down low; they looked so big and venerable up there." The judges asked for the state's recommendation, and heard the new, lowered assessment. "Mr. Coplin," they asked, "how do you feel about this figure?"
He felt great. "We will respond for the record and go with the assessor's value," he answered snappily, knowing he had added to his palette the art of bureaucratic navigation.