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Gazette Premium Content Will Colorado flood victims pay property tax? Bill says no

By Ivan Moreno, The Associated Press Updated: January 26, 2014 at 9:31 am

LYONS — Raging waters carved away at the land under Sal Coppolecchia's house for days last fall.

The historic floods weakened his foundation, caused his walls to collapse and washed away his home of 25 years, carrying off a large chunk of land along with it.

Today, Coppolecchia has a huge crater where his living room and kitchen once stood — and he's expecting a bill for taxes on the destroyed property.

In the coming weeks, state lawmakers will discuss legislation that aims to provide a measure of help for the longtime Lyons resident and hundreds of others in similar situations across northern Colorado.

It's offensive "that we expect people to pay taxes on property that doesn't exist," said Democratic Rep. Jonathan Singer, who is sponsoring a proposal that would have the state pay the bills instead.

The legislation is still in its formative stages, but it would benefit victims of the flooding, as well as the summer's destructive wildfires.

Coppolecchia said he has typically paid about $2,200 in property taxes and any aid — however small — would be welcome.

"When you go through this, financially you don't know if you're going to recover," the 59-year-old said.

Coppolecchia has received nearly $32,000 in aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which deemed his home in Lyons to be 100 percent destroyed. He's now waiting to see whether he will be allowed to rebuild on his property, or if it's deemed unsafe and the government buys him out. Until then, he can only point to spaces over the crater, remembering the layout of his home.

"I had the stairway right here, and then the two bedrooms and the bath upstairs," he said.

"And then the kitchen," he added, "was in that corner back there. And then this was the living room. And then dining room on that end."

As the proposal stands, owners of the destroyed properties would still get a tax bill from county assessors so local governments don't miss out on revenue they rely on to provide services to residents. After the property owners pay the bill, they could them claim a tax credit from the state.

"It's not going to make anyone whole again," Singer said. "But it's going to at least stop the insult to injury."

The idea has bipartisan support, but the suggested process for getting tax relief has prompted concern from some lawmakers and others who think it's unjust for affected property owners to have to pay the taxes in the first place.

Laramie County Assessor Steve Miller, a Republican, called the bill "a good idea with bad mechanics."

"Everybody wants to help the property owners, but you don't want to harass the property owners," he said.

Miller's suggestion would be for the counties to notify the state which homeowners qualify so the state can pay without homeowners getting a tax bill. The county assessors would only inform property owners about what was happening, he said.

Singer acknowledged that there's no perfect way to make the bill work, and said he's talking with county assessors about how to streamline the process.

The September floods damaged parts of northern Colorado, starting in the foothills and spreading onto the plains. Nearly 2,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.

Summer wildfires also ravaged the state. The Black Forest Fire in El Paso County alone destroyed nearly 500 homes, the most ever in state history.

County assessors provided a preliminary estimate to the Department of Local Affairs on how much property taxes are owed for destroyed properties, putting the figure at $2.1 million. However, legislative analysts have not provided lawmakers a final estimated cost to the state.

The property tax aid would apply only to those whose homes were destroyed. That means Regina Cleveland, 55, Coppolecchia's neighbor, may not qualify, since her house is still standing, even if there's no road to access it.

"I'm in a special kind of purgatory," she said, describing a big drop-off where the road used to run past her home.

"There ain't no more land on my land," she joked.

___

Read the bill:

House Bill 1: http://goo.gl/ToLXTx

___

Find Ivan Moreno on Twitter: http://twitter.com/IvanJourno

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