Wednesday, July 25, 2007

All Fired Up

I love the Denver Fire Department. I’ve had two occasions to call them for fires and they responded faster than fast, put out the fires, and cleaned up the mess. Fantastic.

In addition to fighting fires, the DFD also provided yearly inspections to commercial buildings free of charge. This was a great idea and I’m sure it saved money (and lives?) in the long run.

However, some years back, Mayor Webb decided to turn this into a profit center. I don’t recall how it was done (City Council edict?), but suddenly DFD was charging for these inspections. The fee for my building was $46.00 per year, based on square footage. No big deal, I thought, if it helps the Fire Department, I’d be happy to pay (even though my building was already being inspected once a year by the City Boiler Inspectors).

But noooooo.

Even though the DFD was coming around with a fire truck and a fireperson in uniform to do the yearly inspections, and the bill was from the DFD, the money did NOT go to DFD, but instead into the City’s General Fund. I knew that the fire truck at my local station was a 1985 model and needed to be replaced, so each year I asked the fireperson doing the inspection if that had changed, and the answer was no, the Fire Department did not get the money. They seemed unhappy that they had been turned into bill collectors for the City.

In order to continue the story, I’m going to have to digress into some boring details. If you’ve got something better to do, you may want to go do it now.

The building I bought in 1971 is at 1629 York Street. It’s for sale right now and you can visit it here. As you can see, it’s a big (5000 s/f), turn-of-the-century brick building on what was called Banker’s Row back then. Mr. Gaffy built it in 1906, and so I call it the Gaffy Manse (little mansion).

When I bought the building from Mrs. Magers, she asked me if I was going to be doing business in Denver. When I said yes, she said “They will nickel and dime you to death.” Oh Mrs. Magers, how right you were.

Now, back to the story. Because of the size of the building, I’ve both lived in it and run various commercial enterprises from it over the years. Maybe someday I’ll tell you all about those enterprises.

You may know that there are two rates of real property taxation in Denver: Residential and Commercial. The rates bump around a little from year to year, but they are now about 9% and 29% respectively. Whoa, what a difference!

Looks like the Commercial guys are paying the lion’s share. But, as they say, the customer pays in the end, so theoretically the commercial share is passed along to the customer anyway, so Denver’s residents pay all of the real property tax.

Well, back in 1971 I bought the building as a residence, and lived there with my wife and two children. With 7 bedrooms, we had an entire 3rd floor which was going unused, so we decided to rent rooms to boarders to help make up the $256 monthly payment.

We ran ads in Westword, and soon had some nice renters. Within a matter of months, the City taxman came around and told us that we were commercial. I pointed out that it was our residence, but the argument was that if any of it was used for commercial purposes it was all taxed as commercial. You see, mixed-use hadn’t been acknowledged by the brilliant minds at Zoning and City Council.

And so it was that for many years, I paid 29% of the assessed value times the mill levy in real property taxes every year. Back in those days this neighborhood was thought to be a slum and the assessed values were quite low.

In about 1990, the local recession was over, real estate prices and taxes started to go up, and I realized that mixed use had now been acknowledged by the Assessor, and I could probably save some money by pointing out that I was both living in and doing business in the building. They sent out an inspector (named Mrs. Coke) who merrily went through all the rooms, including the basement apartment where I lived then, my children (and wife) having grown up and moved out, and agreed that it was now mixed use.

However, when I got my new assessment, I noted that the basement was now included as taxable square footage whereas it had not been before, and even though I now had mixed use, my taxes actually went up that year, due to the added square footage.

Since I sold my last business in 2000, I stopped using the first floor as commercial space and converted in to home office. I appealed again, they re-inspected, and jacked the assessed value of the land from $125,000 to $250,000, so once again my taxes went up.

If you are still with me here, congratulations. You must not have much to do.

The land value is apportioned between the Commercial and Residential categories, and although the Assessor’s office stopped sending out those details (to save money, and keep you guessing) some years ago, you can still find out if you call them and ask them to fax you the complete data sheet.

This data sheet will provide you with hours of fun. For example I just noticed that my building has been classified as Class A for 36 years, but Class A is for new buildings, and mine's over 100 years old.

The next year, the apportionment of the land value to either Commercial or Residential changed drastically, and most of the land value was squeezed up into the 2nd and 3rd floor (Commercial) so it could be taxed at the higher rate. I called “foul”, but they told me they don’t count the basement in that determination (even though they tax me on it now). Holy fucking shit! This game is rigged!

Okay, calm down here. We want to get through this story. So it’s the year 2000 and I’m still renting out offices on the 2nd and 3rd floor, using the 1st floor as my home office for the piddling around that I still do in the business world, and living in the basement.

But as the REAL ESTATE FRENZY of the late ‘90s really kicked into gear in 2000, many of the renters of my small offices decide to buy homes of their own and they themselves now have home offices and don’t need to rent from me. In short, all of my renters disappeared.

Aside: Have you noticed that every time you turn around, you are reading a story about how the average Denver home owner’s tax (or cost) will “only go up about $46 dollars”? The City is going to be issuing a new bond for improvements to something or other, and your taxes will be going up “only $46” to pay for that. Jeeze Louise.

Well, those “onlys” add up, and, now that I’m old and on the proverbial “fixed income”, the taxes on my building doubled last year to $6600. This is over $500 per month for the privilege of living in Denver. I can’t afford it, and so my beloved Gaffy Manse is now for sale.

But, I digress.

Getting back to the DFD inspection story – When the DFD came around this year, I told them that I no longer had any Commercial use, was entirely Residential, and therefore needed no inspection. The fireman was somewhat inquisitive, so I asked if he wanted to make a complete inspection to verify what I was saying, but he declined, made a note on the form, and left to get back in the Fire Engine. It’s sort of cool (but expensive), they actually have the Fire Engine running in front of your house.

About three weeks later, a firewoman came to the door, and questioned the status of the building. I explained the situation, invited her in, and asked if she wanted to conduct an inspection of my home to verify there was no longer any Commercial use. She declined, as her cell phone had just rung, and she had to leave.

On May 23, this year, I received a bill from DFD for $46 for the inspection. The bill was a SECOND NOTICE, even though I had not received a First Notice. Soooo, I called the number on the invoice, received a recording telling me to call a different number, and then talked to a nice lady at the DFD.

She looked up the invoice, checked with her supervisor, and told me that they had changed the records, all was well, and I could “just tear up the bill”.

“Hahaha!” I laughed, “may I take down your name so that when they call me the next time I can tell them what you said?”

“Yes” she said, “my name is Desiree.”

This morning while I was lounging in the bathtub reading the paper, the phone rang and a Lt. Marty Sandagonie(sp?) left a message saying that the Fire Department “had some issues” regarding the inspection of my house. I have tried 17 times to return the call to the number he said to call, but it is always busy. I guess he’s calling all those deadbeats who haven’t paid for those inspections. And I’m guessing that he’s pissed off, that as a trained and respected fireman, he’s forced into being a bill collector.

That makes 5 contacts by the Fire Department to collect an improperly assessed $46 dollar invoice.

I’ll keep you informed as this exciting story unfolds.

Update: After letting the phone ring more than 30 times, I finally got through. Lt. Gonzales took down the information and said he thought that should take care of it. I hope he's right.


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