My Turn: Don't rush to judge Murkowski

Posted: Friday, August 03, 2007

"There is no there there." The quote from Gertrude Stein kept coming to my mind as I followed the coverage about Sen. Lisa Murkowski purchasing a Kenai River lot for its assessed value.

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Sadly for all of us, there is actual corruption in Alaska politics. There has been one conviction and will probably be more. We have to clean up our politics. In pursuit of that goal, however, we need to be wary of trial by headline and driving out good people by throwing mud at any available target.

The heart of the issue has been the allegation that the senator and her husband, Verne Martell, purchased a lot on Kenai River for less than its value. Many years ago, I worked as an appraiser. I don't claim expertise, but was curious enough to make a few phone calls.

Murkowski and her family wanted to purchase land on the Kenai River to build a home. Bob Penney, who is a lifelong friend of the senator's and is not involved in any matters before Congress, owned a parcel of land next to his home. Penney is fortunate that he doesn't have to sell the land, but was interested in guaranteeing that he could pick his neighbors.

The sale imposed conditions through an memorandum of understanding signed by all parties on December 14. If Martell and Murkowski sold the property within five years, Penney would have both first right of refusal as well as 50 percent of any appreciation over the original sale price. When a sale carries restrictions such as first right of refusal or ceding a portion of profits from a future sale back to the seller, the full and true value can be significantly less.

The senator, Martell and Penney knew that because of the senator's position they would have to establish a fair selling price. They agreed upon the property's assessed value. Alaska statute requires that "the assessor shall assess property at its full and true value as of Jan. 1 of the assessment year" and "the full and true value is the estimated price that the property would bring in an open market and under the then-prevailing market conditions in a sale between a willing seller and a willing buyer both conversant with the property and with prevailing general price levels." The local government assessment is the only government-established, valuation of property in Alaska.

Unfortunately, based on allegations on a Web site calledTPMMuckracker and several generalized quotes from Realtors about asking prices, theAnchorage Daily News adopted the position that assessments represent artificially low values. It did so without any consideration of deed restrictions or analysis of comparable properties, and without talking to Shane Horan, the Kenai Borough property assessor (I had no trouble reaching him), or any appraisers working in the area.

Other newspapers in the state picked up the story without questioning this. For the 2006 tax year, 311 Kenai property owners appealed their assessments; none because their assessment was too low. Full and true value for both appraisals and assessments is properly established through comparisons of actual sales, adjusted for differences, not by comparisons to asking prices. If the staff of the Anchorage Daily News believes asking price automatically represents full and true value, I have property I would like to sell them.

Murkowski is an outstanding senator and a person of integrity. She, Martell, Penney and the Kenai Assessor's Office have been falsely smeared on this issue.

Buying a lot for your home is one of the largest and most personal decisions a family makes. After trying to ensure they did the right thing, all parties were taken aback by the sudden attacks. I found it sad that the senator and Martell were placed in a position where they have chosen to sell back the property to avoid unfounded allegations.

We need to clean our political house, but we need to be very careful of feeding frenzy reporting and false allegations. When it comes to looking for a scandal about the Kenai River property sale, there is no there there.

• McKie Campbell is a former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and friend of all parties involved.

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