FARGO - The Cass County Commission is urging a state board to not approve a cut in property value assessments for the city of Oxbow over concerns the decision could open a "dangerous can of worms" and set a precedent for other state residents who are inconvenienced by projects like the proposed Red River diversion.

Oxbow officials approached the Cass County Tax Equalization Board in June 2011 to request a 20 percent cut to its assessments, which would lower property taxes.

The county denied the request, and Oxbow Mayor James Nyhof sent a letter to the State Board of Equalization last month asking the state to overturn the decision.

Nyhof wrote that the city, located just south of the proposed Fargo-Moorhead diversion, faces "frightening uncertainty" and residents are unable to sell or get appraisals for their homes.

"The project sponsors are so intent to push forward the current plan at all costs, even imprisoning Oxbow residents in their homes," he wrote.

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But Cass County Director of Equalization Frank Klein told the commission Tuesday that residents are still able to get appraisals and mortgages are being written.

He said many residents may be waiting because estimates show they could get as much as 40 percent above assessed value from a diversion buyout rather than selling now.

Commission Chairman Scott Wagner said county officials are "very sympathetic" to what Oxbow is facing. But he said the assessment process creates an equal share of the cost for providing county services that every resident receives, and he said assessment reduction isn't the right process of addressing concerns.

Commissioner Darrell Vanyo said if the state approves the request, it could set a "precedent" to give an assessment cut - and essentially a property tax break - to residents for their "inconvenience" from major projects. He said that could include many flood-prone or recently flooded communities, such as Bismarck and Minot.

Vanyo said Oxbow makes up about 12 percent of the Kindred School District. If the city got its 20 percent assessment cut, it would reduce the district's revenue from Oxbow by about $53,000 - more than 2 percent of its overall budget.

"Where does Kindred School District get these funds replaced?" he asked.

Commissioners unanimously approved sending a letter penned by Wagner to the state board requesting that it uphold the county's decision to not grant the property assessment reduction for Oxbow.

The State Board of Equalization could make a final decision on the appeal during its Thursday meeting.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587

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