Be careful if you stand outside Vermilion resident Russell Claus' home admiring Lake Erie as the waves lap soothingly in his back yard. The beautiful view may make it harder to feel sympathy for Claus' tax problems.
Then again, it's easy to understand his frustration.
Claus built his lakeshore home at 6719 W. Lake Road in 2003 at a total cost of about $380,000. He's had to spend many hours over about two years trying to show why the tax man shouldn't value it at $879,000.
"I probably spent about two full weeks working on the various appeals," he said.
Erie County auditor Tom Paul says Claus happens to live in a really desirable location.
It works the other way, too, Paul said. In March, a home the auditor had valued at about $636,000 sold for $800,000.
Claus says he's blessed to live in his dream home, only a couple of doors down from his grandchildren, but he's not sure how long he can afford the skyrocketing property tax increases being placed on lakefront properties.
That's true even though he's shown a willingness to fight the taxman all the way to Columbus.
Claus, 54, an employee of NASA Glenn Research Station in Cleveland, knows perfectly well that owning a home by the Lake Erie shore means your property value will likely only go up.
Still, the galloping hikes in valuation for his home are impressive. Claus, who shares the home with his wife, Jill, who works at Fish Furniture in North Olmsted, calls them "egregious overvaluations."
Claus built his home for $380,000 in 2003, including $260,000 for the house and $120,000 for the property. He moved in December 2003. A January 2004 evaluation pegged the property as worth $493,990, tacking on about $120,000 of additional value.
"I thought that was high. I didn't feel it was way out of bounds," Claus said.
What really got Claus' attention was the January 2006 revaluation, which hiked the value to $879,420, a 78 percent markup in just two years.
An appeal in 2007 to the Erie County Board of Revision (made up of Paul, county commissioner Bill Monaghan and county treasurer Jo Dee Fantozz) got that reduced to $753,310 in September 2007.
Claus then appealed further to the Board of Tax Appeals in Ohio. He ended his appeal a couple of weeks ago when Erie County agreed to settle the dispute with a valuation of $631,010.
Claus' own estimate was that the correct value was $570,000, but he decided the county's offer was close enough.
He said he doesn't know why he had to spend hours preparing his appeal, or spend money to bolster his case.
"I've lived in other counties," Claus said. "They don't take such an adversarial approach to tax valuations."
Claus said he doesn't blame the local auditor for the situation and believes the big tax hikes on lakeshore landowners was imposed by state officials in Columbus.
"Tom Paul seems like a really nice guy," he said.
Paul said tax valuations are decided locally and he's received no pressure from state officials to hike property values along Lake Erie.
Claus' plight reflects the fact that his house is in a very desirable location, Paul said.
"There are only so many parcels along that lakefront," he said.
Only a few Erie County property owners fight their tax revaluations all the way to Columbus. Paul said the 2006 revaluations of 46,200 parcels generated 748 appeals to the Erie County Board of Revision. Another 83 of those Board of Revision cases, including the Claus case, was appealed further to the state's Board of Tax Appeals.
Claus said he's left wondering whether the next revaluation, in 2009, will force him to move.
"We built this house to retire in," he said. "Based on what's happening with the taxes, I doubt that we'll be able to retire here permanently."
Challenge your tax
If you disagree with your property tax valuation, here's what you should do, advises Russell Claus, who lowered his valuation from $879,420 to $631,010.
1. Check the information posted on the auditor's Web site (erie.iviewtaxmaps.com) to make sure it's accurate. Clause said when he looked at the entry for his home, he discovered it listed his unfinished basement as finished.
2. Hire a professional appraiser with good credentials for an independent evaluation.
3. Get information about the purchase price of comparable homes recently sold in your neighborhood. Comparable sales information is available from the auditor's office.
County auditor Tom Paul agrees all of that is good advice, although he said the cost of spending hundreds of dollars for an appraisal should be weighed against possible tax savings.