During last fall’s election season uproar about skyrocketing property valuations in Missoula County, attorney Quentin Rhoades convened a group of property owners at the Broadway Inn, which is owned by Walt Muralt, owner of Muralt’s Travel Plaza. Muralt told the assembled crowd of more than 50 people that his property taxes had gone up by $20,000 in 2017, eliciting gasps and similar stories from property owners whose taxes had more than doubled.
At the event, Rhoades suggested they could band together and sue the Department of Revenue over the skyrocketing property assessments in Missoula County, and over the next few months he kept them updated in a Facebook group where they had organized as the Missoula Area Taxpayers Action Group. In late January, Rhoades filed a class action against the Montana DOR in Missoula County District Court on behalf of 11 commercial property owners in Missoula County. According to the suit, all of the plaintiffs saw their valuations double, at minimum, between 2016 and 2017, with one plaintiff’s valuation, on nine acres of vacant land in Clinton, increasing from $303,481 to $839,770.
Rhoades says valuation methods are supposed to be consistent across the state and that the discovery process may reveal that Missoula County was not consistent with valuation methods in the rest of Montana, or even consistent from block to block. “There are people who have neighbors across the street whose values went down when theirs went up 200 percent,” he says. “We’re asking the court to say this is not constitutional.…The commercial property taxpayers have not been treated fairly.”
The DOR told the Indy in November that some commercial properties with big jumps in valuation had been severely undervalued before. “It was determined some commercial properties in Missoula County have been under-appraised for a number of years and the values represented by this reappraisal reflect the market value of those properties based upon recent sales transactions that have occurred in the area,” DOR Missoula County manager Leslie Snyder wrote in an email.
The issue so dominated the last election that John Engen pledged during his victory speech to be attentive to the concerns of his most vocal opponents, some of whom are plaintiffs in this class action. Rhoades himself filed complaints against the mayor’s campaign with the Commissioner of Political Practices.
Last week, Engen announced the formation of a Property Tax Working Group. A notable absence was Councilperson Jesse Ramos, who is a member of the Missoula Area Taxpayers Action Group, says Rhoades.
“Jesse, he ran on lower taxes and government responsibility,” Rhoades says. “The mayor said a pretty firm and terse no [to Ramos], so I think that makes you understand the working group is about alternate sources of revenue, not any sort of control on the spending,” Rhoades says.
“I think that the mayor doesn’t care about property taxes,” Ramos says. City Communications Director Ginny Merriam writes on behalf of the mayor’s office: “As Mayor Engen told Mr. Ramos in an e-mail, he invited three experienced Council members in positions of leadership to participate in the advisory working group as a courtesy….Eight other Council members were not invited, as well.”
Another class action against the DOR, this one on behalf of four plaintiffs, was filed in Missoula County on Jan. 24 by Helena attorney Michael Green. Rhoades says there’s a chance the two suits could be consolidated going forward.