White Bird Rep. Priscilla Giddings isn’t the only state official facing questions over a property tax homeowner exemption.
Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, who lives in Nampa much of the year, is in a dispute with the Washington County assessor over the 2017 homeowner exemption he received on his childhood home in Midvale.
The Washington County Board of Examiners sided with Denney in June, saying he deserved the exemption. However, County Assessor Georgia Plischke appealed the case to the state Board of Tax Appeals. The state board held a hearing earlier this month, but hasn’t yet issued a ruling.
“He claims the exemption in Washington County, even though he lives in Nampa, in Canyon County,” Plischke said. “State statute says the exemption may be granted if the property is owner-occupied and used as the primary dwelling place. There’s no language that says he can choose which property he wants the exemption on.”
Plischke said she appealed the Board of Examiners’ decision because that’s what she would do with any other Washington County homeowner.
“If I did it the way that (Denney) asked, I’d be treating him differently,” she said. “Anyone else with two properties doesn’t get to pick where they get the exemption.”
Relying on the same state code, Denney came to a different conclusion. As he interprets it, a “primary dwelling place” isn’t necessarily the home where someone lives at a particular moment, or even for much of the year. Rather, it’s defined as the residence to which an owner intends to return - something that, in his view, perfectly describes the Midvale property.
“I intend to retire there” he said. “It’s where I was born and raised. My parents owned it when I was born, and my wife and I bought it when we became parents. We raised all our kids there. It’s home.”
Denney, who was elected secretary of state in 2014, said the Washington County exemption “isn’t about money.” Given the differing values of the two homes, “I’d probably get three times as much if I took the exemption in Canyon County.”
He lives in Nampa because it’s an easier commute, he said. However, he typically returns to Midvale on weekends and on holidays or vacation. The home is still fully furnished. He also maintains his voter registration, vehicle registration and driver’s license in Washington County.
Given that evidence, the county Board of Examiners agreed that he qualified for the Midvale exemption.
Past precedent suggests the decision is likely to be upheld. In a 2013 case, for example, the state Board of Tax Appeals sided with a couple who claimed the exemption for their Eagle home, even though they had temporarily relocated to California.
The couple maintained their voter and vehicle registrations in Idaho and returned to Eagle as often as possible. Based on prior court cases that said people “can have many residences, but only one domicile,” the board agreed the couple had adequately demonstrated their intent to return to Idaho.
As much as anything, Denney’s case illustrates the fact that any law can be subject to conflicting interpretations.
“About 98 percent of the time the situation is very simple and straightforward, because most people only own one home,” noted Latah County Assessor Pat Vaughan. “But sometimes it’s cloudy, either because someone is trying to be clever and work the system, or because of unique circumstances.”
Vaughan said every assessor has a few cases that “stick in their craw.” Overall, though, “I wouldn’t say the code is broken.”
Questions regarding the exemption cropped up earlier this month, when the Spokesman Review reported that state Rep. Priscilla Giddings claimed an Ada County homeowner exemption in 2016, when she was registered to vote in Idaho County. She applied for and received an Idaho County exemption for a new home that same year.
The Ada County Assessor’s Office has since indicated it may try to collect back taxes on the 2016 exemption. That decision will be based largely on whether Giddings intended to return to Ada County, or if she had actually moved.
Giddings has declined to answer questions regarding the issue.
Board of Tax Appeals member Leland “Lee” Heinrich, who previously represented Idaho and Valley counties for two terms in the Idaho Senate, said very few homeowner exemption cases get appealed to the state level.
“Probably less than 1 or 2 percent,” he said. “That’s because most cases are cut and dried.”
Given the limited number of disputes, Heinrich said, “I don’t think there’s a sufficient number for the Legislature to get involved. No matter how you write a statute, there’s going to be different interpretations. That’s why we have so many dang lawyers.”
Spence may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 791-9168.