County settles with ranchers on grazing land values

PRESCOTT - The Yavapai County Board of Supervisors and a large group of local ranchers have reached a tentative agreement on how to value livestock grazing land for property tax purposes in the 2014 and 2015 tax years.

The supervisors agreed to the settlement during a special meeting Thursday in Prescott.

They agreed on a full cash value of $10.10 per acre, the same value an Arizona Tax Court judge ruled last year that the ranchers should pay for the 2013 tax year.

The judge set a value of $9.19 for 2012.

"This closes various chapters of the lawsuit and is mutually beneficial to both the county and the Cattle Growers," Board of Supervisors Chair Craig Brown said after Thursday's short meeting. "We wanted to take this issue off the table for the next two years."

The plaintiffs' attorney and the ranchers' spokesman, Andy Groseta, were not available Thursday afternoon for comment. Groseta is a Verde Valley rancher and the immediate past president of the Arizona Cattle Growers' Association that joined the Tax Court appeal of the county assessor's higher values.

"I understand why the Board of Supervisors chose to settle this case with this compromised solution," Yavapai County Assessor Pam Pearsall said in an email Thursday. "The Assessor's Office will continue to value all properties fairly and according to the law, as we understand that if we give favors to a select few, the tax burden would be spread among everyone else, giving the few a break at the expense of the many."

The agreement now has to be filed in court and signed by the co-defendant, the Arizona Department of Revenue, explained Roberta Livesay, special counsel for the defendants Yavapai County and Pearsall.

Since state-assigned values are not in question, the state is likely to sign off on the settlement agreement, she said.

The Tax Court case involving the 2012 and 2013 values continues today with oral arguments in Phoenix, including arguments about how much attorneys' fees the county should pay to the more than 80 plaintiffs.

The usual limit is $30,000 unless the plaintiffs can prove they should get more, Livesay said.

The 80-plus plaintiffs own a combined 430,000 acres of the approximately 750,000 private ag acres in the county, Pearsall estimated.

They include locally well-known names such as Chino Grande, Deep Well, Fain, Hays, Kieckhefer, Maughn, McCraine, Orme, Teskey and Yavapai Ranch.

The county's grazing lands had been valued at $7.56 per acre for a quarter-century when Pearsall decided to update the value to an average of $25 per acre for the 2011 tax year, according to the county. That increase would have taken place over a period of 20 years since a new state law restricts annual value increases, Pearsall said.

Pearsall said she used the Arizona Department of Revenue's analysis of gross agricultural rental rates on private land to come up with the revised values.

The ranchers sought a value of $3.54 per acre, based on their own study. They argued that the values should also have looked at the rental rates on public lands.

State law doesn't allow that, Livesay said.

Pearsall said she will use her own lease studies in the future, even though county assessors haven't done that in the past.

Follow Joanna Dodder on Twitter @joannadodder

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