Mistaken land claim comes with a cost

PECOS, N.M. (KRQE) – For Rick Simpson, life is tied to the mountains that rise above Pecos Canyon. The land and the river that cuts a path through it have been constants.

“Oh, it’s beautiful,” says Simpson, who grew up on land homesteaded by – and deeded to – his great grandfather, Cristino Rivera. “We went hiking all over those mountains.”

With his eight brothers and sisters, Simpson helped tend to the 126 Ranch.

Somewhere along the way, Simpson says his grandfather sold part of the ranch to a mining company. Along the southern border of the land near Willow Creek, evidence of the mine is still visible.

But for years, there have been questions among family members about which land was sold and who holds the title to the remaining part of what’s known as “Tract 43.”

Earlier this year, Simpson filed a claim — officially a “Declaration of Land Patent” — on nearly 73 acres of mountainside to the east of the Pecos River that didn’t appear to have a title.

Over the next six months, he got an education on just how difficult it can be in New Mexico to track titles, boundaries and tax assessments; and how costly it can be if there’s a mistake along the way.

Pursuing a Claim

At the county assessor’s office in Las Vegas, N.M., Simpson’s sister, Lela Flanery-Heineken, says the assessor told her if the property came up without an assessment, they’d have a good shot at claiming the land.

Tips on making a claim

“And I said, ‘Are we going to have to pay back taxes?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, I’ll figure all of that out,’” Flanery-Heineken says.

San Miguel County Assessor Elaine Estrada was right.

New Mexico law does let people claim abandoned land. Often, there’s a requirement for the payment of back taxes. That bill goes back 10 years. In the case of the land Simpson claimed, the assessor figured that back taxes totaled $7,800.77.

Simpson had a bank cut a cashier’s check and paid the tax.

“We got all excited,” Flanery-Heineken says. “We started picking our [home sites]: ‘This is mine, I want to be next to you over here.’”

But within a few days, it became clear that those plans were all for naught.

The Real Owner

When Simpson stopped by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to ask for an easement to cross state land so he could get to his property, he found out that the state owns the land he claimed.

Game and Fish, Simpson says, had acquired the land from a mining company through eminent domain. He checked the department’s maps and records against what he knew about the land.

Suddenly, it became clear why the San Miguel County Assessor’s Office didn’t have a record of anyone paying tax on the land: the state of New Mexico does not pay property tax.

Disappointed and concluding that the state’s land claim trumped his, Simpson sent a letter to Game and Fish letting the agency know he had relinquished his own claim. He also filed a notice with the San Miguel County clerk.

Simpson waited for his $7,800.77 to be returned: “You don’t own property, you don’t owe taxes on it. Plain and simple.”

Not quite.

Finding a Reason for the Refund

New Mexico law makes it difficult for taxpayers to get a refund. Once property tax is paid, the money is closely guarded. That’s because the state’s schools and agencies rely on property tax for funding.

In addition, making refunds difficult protects taxpayers against elected officials who might be tempted to dole out refunds in exchange for political favors.

Assessment Estimate
Assessment Estimate

That means Simpson’s relinquishment, on file at the County Clerk’s Office since April 8, wasn’t enough to get his money back. San Miguel County Attorney Jesus Lopez said Simpson needed to write a letter to the county treasurer to formally request a refund.

Simpson wrote that letter at the end of May, but emails nearly two weeks later between Lopez and a staffer with the state’s Property Tax Division show that the county attorney still wasn’t sure he could find a statute allowing him to legally refund the money.

In a phone conversation, Lopez pointed out that state property tax law centers on what property owners are allowed to do and how they get refunds. Given that Simpson didn’t own the property, no statute spoke directly to his problem.

Eventually, the county attorney settled on a law that allows for money to be refunded if an assessment was made by mistake. Since Simpson didn’t own the property but was given an estimate of what he would owe, the county decided it could give him back his money.

Unreliable Records

Simpson remains ticked off at the whole affair. He says the mess could have been avoided by better record keeping.

The state agrees.

“The legal description (of the property) should say ‘Owned by Game & Fish,’” says Michael O’Melia, Deputy Director of the Property Tax Division at the New Mexico Department of Tax and Revenue.

O’Melia recognizes, though, that in a state with a history of confusing and passionate claims to land, the best available records often fall short.

Such is the case, apparently, in San Miguel County. Assessor Elaine Estrada says handwritten property cards filled with scribbled notes from past reviews and often clipped or stapled together form the backbone of the county’s record keeping. The county made the move to property cards in 1970. It was the same year, Estrada says, that the county’s property maps were last updated en masse.

Map of land in Pecos Canyon
Map of land in Pecos Canyon

The effect is two-fold. In the case of the cards, the 1970 date doesn’t reach back nearly far enough. Simpson’s great grandfather homesteaded the property in the 1880s. Because there’s often no handwritten history from any date prior to 1970 on the property cards, Estrada says there’s almost a century of history about the Simpson’s claimed property that is, as far as her office can see, blank.

When it comes to maps, though, the 1970 date is far too old. While most counties are using updated mapping technology, San Miguel County’s assessments and boundaries are still largely based on paper maps that haven’t been updated in almost half a century.

Estrada says the county is “slowly but surely” updating both systems. Geographic Information System – GIS – technology is being used to bring maps into the 21st Century. And, while paper property cards often remain the last word, much of the information is being transferred to computer files that are more easily available to office staff.

Unlike larger counties such as Bernalillo, Santa Fe and Sandoval, San Miguel County does not have any searchable property data online. Anyone who wishes to research land titles and assessments across the county’s more than 4,700 square miles must make their way to county offices in Las Vegas, N.M.

Payback

Elaine Estrada says she couldn’t find a card at all to give her some idea of who owned the land Rick Simpson tried to claim for himself and his eight siblings. The closest she came was a section of nearby land that seems to give credence to Simpson’s claim that his grandfather sold some of the land to mineral interests.

Without a record of the title held by Game and Fish (which she still hasn’t seen for herself), the land looked vacant to Estrada.

At the state, Michael O’Melia says county assessors aren’t required to do exhaustive title research. Still, he says it’s unusual for a mistakenly paid tax bill to get this wrapped up in red tape. “Most of the time,” O’Melia says, “when things like this occur, they are taken care of quickly at the county level. This progressed a lot further.”

After months of waiting and weeks after he wrote his letter requesting a refund, Simpson opened the mail last week to find a check.

It may be the end of Simpson’s story, but both the state and the county virtually guarantee this will happen again to someone, as New Mexico sorts out a lengthy, confusing, and sometimes infuriating system for keeping track of who owns what.

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