Taxes not always a sure thing in Socorro County

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It seems as though every time I start to write an exposé of the county assessor’s office, the problem I want to examine starts getting fixed. That’s a good sign.

This time around, I heard some ranches in the eastern part of the county weren’t being assessed the 0.1 mill levy that supports the Socorro Soil Water Conservation District.

I found out about this problem when I went into the Socorro SWCD office in town to apply for cost share for a new drip system I want to install in my front flower bed.

Socorro SWCD is a state entity dedicated to helping county landowners implement practices that conserve and protect our natural resources. The help is both technical and financial. There are 47 Soil Water Conservation Districts in New Mexico, and three in Socorro County. Most Socorro County landowners live within the Socorro SWCD boundaries.

In the past my late husband and I turned to Socorro SWCD for help installing a drip system and to remove invasive weeds — salt cedars and Russian olive trees — from our farm fields.

Unlike in years past, this time I had to submit a copy of my tax bill. And why? Because not every Socorro County landowner within the Socorro SWCD applying for cost share was paying the SWCD mill levy, according to Nyleen Troxel Stowe, Socorro SWCD director of special projects.

The Socorro SWCD gets $150,000 per year from the Socorro County mill levy, which was passed by Socorro County voters in a 1994 referendum, she said. That’s most of its budget.

The county assessor’s office wasn’t finding every property within the district, so the treasurer’s office wasn’t charging those landowners the mill levy on their tax bills.

Since the parcels in question were grazing lands north of Bingham, the amount of tax money being lost was negligible, Stowe said. And fewer than 10 ranchers from that area had applied for cost share. But it was the principle of the thing that drove her crazy.

Stowe and range technician Will Kolbenschlag started hand delivering levy-less tax bills, one by one, to the county assessor’s office and office manager Julie Griego started adding the district levy to their property files, parcel by parcel.

Griego blamed a transition from an old computer software system for some of the delay. Data from properties that had been entered in the old system were not searchable in the new Tyler software system, so there was no way she could use the database to search for levy-less parcels. She depended on Stowe to alert her about problem parcels.

The company that supported the county’s old software system went bankrupt, so the county couldn’t get any technical support to help with the transition, Griego said.

Plus Griego didn’t have an up-to-date computerized map of the Socorro SWCD to help her identify parcels within the district. In the old days, a computerized map wouldn’t have done any good because the county had no employees with expertise with mapping software. But now the county does — Gail Rogers.

This month, Stowe provided Griego with the “shape” file of the Socorro SWCD, a computerized map outlining the shape of the district that Socorro County mapper Gail Rogers will use to provide the information Griego needs in order to add the mill levy assessments more efficiently.

Rogers came on board in April 2012 after the previous county mapper, who was a “paper mapper” only, was let go.

Rogers, who has a degree in computer-aided drafting and 20 years’ experience, has started the process of bringing Socorro County into the 21st century, at least in terms of county property records.

She thinks it’ll take a couple of years to get the base map for the entire county on the computer.

“We’re in the infancy of our computer-based mapping for the county,” Rogers said. “The first step will be to hand enter data.”

She will be working to get all the parcels within the Socorro SWCD entered before the 2013 tax bills go out in November.

“By 2015, we’ll be modernized,” she said. “After that, the Assessor’s Office records will be more up to date and errors will diminish.”

Then most snafus at the assessor’s office will be human generated.

And the best way to fix them will be at the ballot box.