Larry Barker Investigates
ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – The former Bernalillo County assessor cheated taxpayers out of tens of thousands of dollars in December when she made a secret, back-room deal before resigning to join the Public Regulation Commission.
“Everybody that pays their taxes, works hard, pays them in full, is getting cheated,” said Bernalillo County Commissioner Wayne Johnson. “Either through incompetence or preferential treatment, somebody’s getting a deal that nobody else would get.”
That deal came courtesy of former Assessor Karen Montoya and centered on a 12,000-square-foot, Tuscan-style mansion in Albuquerque’s North Valley, which is owned by Dallas resident Michael Budgaher.
News 13’s Larry Barker profiled the three-acre estate – which features six bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a guesthouse, a duck pond, an orchard, a vineyard. pool and cabana – in November. At that time, the home at 4610 Rio Grande Lane, NW was listed for sale at $7 million, which meant Budagher would have owed about $80,000 a year in property taxes.
However, the 2012 tax bill on the home was $24. In fact, over the last four years, Budagher, who grew up in Albuquerque, paid less than $100 in property taxes on the home and the land, according to Bernalillo County tax records.
At that time, New Mexico Tax and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla was, well, aghast.
“This is incredible,” she said in November. “How somebody is paying 24-bucks is unbelievable.”
Montoya at the time admitted she made a mistake and promised to reassess the property as well as collect the appropriate back taxes before she left office in December to assume her seat on the PRC.
“Well, I guess we are just going to have to sit down and talk to Mr. Budagher,” Montoya said in November.
However, by the time she resigned in late December and became Commissoner Montoya in January, there was no overt evidence that she’d reached an agreement with Budagher.
Tanya Giddings, who assumed the assessor post after Montoya resigned, said re-assessing the Budagher mansion would be a top priority.
But what Giddings didn’t know – in fact, what no one but Montoya and Budagher knew – was that the back tax bill had already been settled.
“I found out in the beginning of April,” Giddings said. “It was discovered that Mr. Budagher had already been assessed back taxes … prior to me coming on.”
The terms of that secret deal called for Budagher to pay $5,253.80 for 2010’s property taxes, $5,270.04 for 2011 and $5,562.88 for 2012, according to the assessor’s office. The grand total: $16,076.48 on an estate that was then-valued at $7 million.
And the reason for the miniscule tax bill?
Budagher paid no property taxes on the 12,000-square-foot mansion, the guest house, the pool, the cabana or most of the other improvements on the property, according to tax records. The Texas tycoon paid property taxes only on the mammoth garage on the estate, which was valued at $20,000.
Giddings said the reassessment was not done by the book.
“I was surprised,” she said. “I was not very happy.”
Padilla said the tax deal was against state law.
“I believe that the residents of Bernalillo County should be outraged,” she said. “They’ve been short-changed. I have no idea what (Montoya’s) rationale is. I was flabbergasted.”
Montoya didn’t return numerous phone calls seeking comment on the back-room deal. So News 13 caught up with her at her PRC office in Santa Fe.
Asked about the secret settlement, Montoya said, “That’s not quite what happened.”
However, after being asked to explain the settlement, Montoya said, “I do have an open meeting,” and refused to comment further.
Padilla said Bernalillo County has the right to go back and reassess the bill because it was not correct. But Giddings said it’s too late for that.
“The actions taken by the prior assessor has already resolved this issue,” she said, adding that she has no plans to reassess the Budagher property.
On the other hand, Budagher’s tax-free ride is over. New property values were just published and the mansion’s assessed value has jumped from $1,800 last year to $2.5 million this year. Property taxes now will be about $30,000 a year.
Bernalillo County Commissioner Johnson said Montoya owes Bernalillo County taxpayers an apology, and that the secret deal should serve as a warning to voters.
“Be careful who you elect,” he said. “It’s another form of public corruption, even if it’s just a form of public incompetence.”