More than 4,000 property owners in Douglas and Sarpy Counties filed valuation protests this year, down about 20 percent from 2012.
The protest list includes some of the largest commercial property owners in the two counties, such as Oak View Mall and Mutual of Omaha. But homeowners — some with million-dollar mansions and hundreds with houses assessed at less than $50,000 — account for the majority of the protests.
The number of protests may be down because relatively few property owners saw increased valuations this year.
Protests typically spike when valuations are rising and property owners worry about tax hikes. But for several years, county assessors have been reducing more valuations than they have raised because of weakness in the real estate market.
The annual Board of Equalization process lets property owners protest what they say are incorrect valuations that would result in unfair property taxes. The deadline for filing protests was July 1.
While relatively few people appeal their valuations, some do it almost every year.
In Douglas County, 24 percent of this year's protests come from property owners who also appealed in 2012. In more than 100 cases they are seeking even lower valuations than they won last year.
Generally, however, the repeat protests come from those who were unsuccessful last year or received a valuation hike this year. Some cases represent just the latest skirmish in a long-standing war over a property's valuation.
Mutual of Omaha has been fighting Douglas County for years over the valuation of its headquarters complex near 33rd and Dodge Streets.
The county says it's worth more than $90 million, based on valuations for other downtown office space.
Mutual says it should be about $51 million.
If Mutual prevails, the company could slice more than $800,000 from its annual property tax bill of nearly $2 million.
Mutual won a round from Nebraska's Tax Equalization and Review Commission in 2002. But Douglas County Assessor Roger Morrissey raised the company's valuation in 2009, triggering a series of annual appeals.
Michael Schleich, a lawyer representing Mutual, said the structures would have limited market value for any other owner and could not be turned into a multi-tenant office building.
But county officials say Mutual already leases some space to other tenants. And they contend that the adjacent Midtown Crossing complex, which Mutual developed, is boosting the value of its office buildings.
Mutual disagrees about the impact of Midtown Crossing and has submitted its own appraisal of the property.
The Douglas County Board rejected Mutual's protests in recent years, so the company appealed to the state commission. A Tax Equalization and Review Commission hearing on the 2010, 2011 and 2012 valuations began earlier this year and is set to resume in September.
Big property owners such as Mutual, who have the most dollars at stake, are most likely to file valuation protests.
Of Douglas County's 190 largest property owners — those with parcels valued at $10 million or more — 53 are filing appeals this year, according to a World-Herald analysis. Nearly one in five of the top property owners protested in both 2012 and 2013.
In Sarpy County, the biggest single protest is for the Northrop Grumman office building in Bellevue, which is assessed at about $18 million. Other major property protests in Sarpy include apartment buildings and shopping centers anchored by Walmart or Target.
High-end homeowners are less likely than businesses to protest their valuations repeatedly. Of the 258 Douglas County homeowners with valuations of at least $1 million, only 17 filed protests this year — and just six filed in both 2012 and 2013.
One of the repeat protests came from Thomas and Norma Hilt, who waged a high-profile battle with Douglas County over the valuations of the Witherspoon mansion in Regency until it was damaged in a 2009 fire.
This year marks the Hilts' fourth straight year of protesting the valuation of their 7,800-square-foot house overlooking the golf course in Indian Creek, a subdivision northwest of 190th Street and West Maple Road. Douglas County says the valuation should be $1,757,200.
The Hilts, citing a review commission decision last year, are seeking a $1,140,000 valuation. They say that's still more than they paid in 2009 when they bought the property from their daughter and son-in-law. They disagree with the county's valuation, which represented a 54 percent hike when it was raised to the current level in 2012. In their appeal, the Hilts say their house is overbuilt for the neighborhood and would not sell for as much as the county claims.
Deputy Douglas County Assessor Barry Couch said the Hilt valuation was raised as part of a neighborhood-wide reappraisal last year. He acknowledged that the house is easily the largest in Indian Creek, but it's not the only million-dollar house in the subdivision.
Not every property owner who files a protest is seeking a reduction. Some homeowners with valuation cuts this year worry that a low valuation will hurt them when they apply for a loan or try to sell their house.
Last year about 30 protests in Douglas County were from people who wanted their valuations increased, officials said. It's not clear how many are doing so this year, but one of them is Kathy Burns.
Burns, who is president of the Willow Wood Neighborhood Association in northwest Omaha, won a Board of Equalization appeal in 2012, cutting her valuation from $137,100 to $131,500. But she was dismayed to see that the county dropped her house an additional $11,000 this year.
In her appeal, Burns said she checked valuations and sales prices for more than 50 other houses in the neighborhood. She concluded that the lower valuation this year “must be a mistake.”
For example, she said, a nearby house that sold for about $3,000 more than hers in 2006 now has a valuation that is $14,500 more. Burns said she wants her valuation back at $131,500, which she considers fair.
“In my opinion,” Burns wrote, “an artificially low valuation would negatively affect my resale value if I were to sell my property in the next three years.”