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Published: Friday, 11/3/2006

Auditor defends 'strange' reduction in Noe's home appraisal

BY MARY-BETH McLAUGHLIN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Even Lucas County Auditor Larry Kaczala admits it is "strange" how Tom Noe's Monclova Township house was reduced in value by $132,100 after two appeals five years ago.

Mr. Kaczala contends his office did nothing wrong and that the lower value was appropriate, but the comparable homes used for one of the reductions were so different in size that it's debatable whether they were the best evidence for the reduced price.

"The value should have been higher than what they came up with," said appraiser Robert Porter, president of Porter & Associates in Springfield Township, who reviewed the Noe appraisal for The Blade without knowing for whom the document had been prepared.

The drop in value from $747,100 to $615,000 of the house at 7125 Oak Bluff Road has raised eyebrows at a time when Noe, a major Republican fund-raiser, is on trial in Lucas County Common Pleas Court for embezzling more than $2 million from the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation.

The change in house value occurred the same year that Noe gave $1,000 in campaign contributions to the Republican auditor's re-election campaign.

The appearance of impropriety is not lost on Mr. Kaczala.

"The whole situation is strange, I'll admit that," Mr. Kaczala said. He maintained, however, that there is no connection between the donation and the lowering of Noe's property twice.

The reduction became a publicly debated issue in recent weeks when Anita Lopez, the Democrat challenging Mr. Kaczala for his post in Tuesday's election, claimed there was an appearance of impropriety because Noe made a $1,000 political donation to Mr. Kaczala at about the same time that his home was being revalued.

The auditor said the accusation was a desperate move by Ms. Lopez.

"The [review] process completely takes the politics out of it," Mr. Kaczala said.

The Board of Revision, though, is made up of representatives from the offices of the auditor, the county treasurer, and the president of the board of commissioners.

Ms. Lopez said the questionable comparables used in the bank appraisal and the subsequent value drop show the system is broken.

"I don't know how many times I have to scream to the top of the hills that this system is not fair and equitable to all citizens," she said.

She said she is convinced that the auditor's staff was influenced by Noe's power in the community and by the political contribution, and that home values would not have been lowered for ordinary citizens.

However, records indicate that values of many homes have been changed through the appeal process each time the county produces new values. But Ms. Lopez said if the county appraisers performed their work "right the first time," then few people would appeal their values.

Noe built his house in 1999, and its initial valuation by the county in 2000 was $747,100. He filed an informal protest with Mr. Kaczala's office, and the auditor lowered the price to $695,400, using comparable sales. No record was kept of what comparable sales were used.

Noe, however, wanted the tax value on his house cut more and filed a formal appeal with the county Board of Revision. After that hearing, the value was lowered again, to $615,000, a nearly 18 percent drop from the original valuation of the 6,700-square-foot house.

The house was sold in 2004 for $723,000.

A Blade check of the value of a handful of homes built in Monclova Township that were constructed around the same time as the Noe home, had more than 5,000 square feet, and the owners protested their values, showed decreases of 11 percent to 19 percent were granted. Those six homes were among the 61 built in the township in the last decade and which The Blade reviewed.

Of 14 sales in the township in the last several years of houses with 4,000 square feet or more, only one was near the size of the Noe house and the owner did not request to have the value lowered.

Mr. Kaczala said the Noe decrease was based almost entirely on a bank appraisal commissioned by the homeowner when he obtained loan financing. The auditor said that, in nine times out of 10, the bank appraisal will be accepted as sufficient evidence and more weight will be given to it because the bank has a vested interest in setting the correct value.

The auditor defended his staff and the reduced valuation, even though his staff's original assessment was $132,000 higher. It is difficult to determine value on newly built houses, he said, and particularly ones the size of Noe's, as there are few comparable house sales.

But Irma Wolf, chief deputy in the Wood County auditor's office, said the onus is on a homeowner challenging a value, and comparable houses must be identical or very similar.

"The best indication of value is sales price. If you have a fairly recent sale, say in the last two or three years, the value should be pretty close to that."

She added, "Bank appraisals sometimes are skewed. Kind of depends on what it's been done for."

One debatable part of the appraisal submitted on Noe's behalf is the comparable houses used were much smaller in terms of total living area, the basis upon which the auditor's office determines its values.

The independent appraiser hired by Noe's bank used calculations of gross living area, which covers only livable room space. The appraiser likely measured the rooms in Noe's home.

Appraisal firms, including the one that handled that report, said they do not enter other houses, but try to get room measurements from the multiple listing service maintained by the Toledo Board of Realtors or by using drawings on the auditor's Web site.

Using that method, the Noe home had 5,483 square feet. For the comparable houses, one in Springfield Township had 5,255 square feet and the other two had 3,864 feet and 3,600 feet. Such appraisers will try to talk to real estate agents and even sellers about the interior quality of the other houses, such as whether they have marble floors and granite counter tops.

Mr. Porter, the Springfield Township appraiser, stressed that his opinion that the excessive value drop on the Noe property was only a first impression and he couldn't be sure without doing his own inspections and research.

But, he explained, the smaller homes in the same subdivision that were submitted as comparables were "dramatically less, as far as square footage was concerned," and the net adjustment to the price of their homes were so much larger - $88,000 and $98,450 - that it practically renders a comparison useless.

The first comparison in the bank appraisal, the home in Springfield Township, had a $33,000 net adjustment, moving its price to $648,000. That meant, Mr. Porter said, the Noe price should have been closer to that figure.

"This is an art, not a science," Mr. Porter said. "There's judgment in selecting the comparables."

In determining adequate comparisons, Ben Burnore, a fourth-generation appraiser with Burnore Appraisal Co. in Toledo, said the first factor in comparisons is location, preferably a house within the same subdivision.

"Then you look at style, bedroom count, size, number of bathrooms," he said. "Then you look at whether the basement is finished or not, if there are garages, porches, patios, etc. The adjustable value-related factors would come into play."

Contact Mary-Beth McLaughlin at

mmclaughlin@theblade.com

or 419-724-6199.



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