CNJ staff photo: Sharna Johnson Barbara Hamar of the Curry County Tax Assessor’s Office flips through the file of declared livestock in the county. Aside from commercial cattle operations, very few people declare their horses, cattle and small livestock as they are required to by law.
Only a small percentage of livestock in Curry County are legally accounted for and officials know revenue from livestock taxes is well below what it should be.
Collecting livestock taxes is a long-standing problem with no immediate solution, particularly when it comes to smaller owners who aren’t selling or moving their animals, according to state and local officials.
For 2010, there were 84 horses and 99 sheep declared on the tax rolls in Curry County.
Tax Assessor Tim Lyman said there are many more horses and small livestock in the county than what is declared, but the county relies on owners to come forward and he said there aren’t really any other options.
“I don’t know how many people it would take going out and driving up and down the roads (to count livestock). It would just be a logistical nightmare keeping up with the livestock,” he said.
“Would it be worth hiring somebody and buying gas and putting them out on the county roads and counting people’s horses? We can just barely keep up with new construction and (property) valuations.”
Large commercial farms and ranches don’t slip through the cracks as easily though.
Lyman said anytime cattle are moved or sold, his office gets a copy of inspection reports done by the state Livestock Board, giving them a better picture of the numbers.
By comparison to other livestock, 233,674 dairy cattle and 9,775 regular cattle were declared.
“They (cattle operations) send us a report with a check, and they’ve been very good about paying their share of the property tax,” he said.
Under the state tax levy, owners are required to declare each head of livestock they own, with livestock defined as: “Cattle, horses, mules, asses, sheep, goats and buffalo”
The tax amount per animal typically averages out to less than $10 per year with a $5 minimum bill, according to Barbara Hamar, who processes livestock taxes for the county.
A commercial grade, unregistered horse would be taxed at $3.50 a year.
“I think a lot of the farmers and ranchers think they’re paying more than their share already. They’re paying but by state statute, all livestock are supposed to valued and assessed,” Lyman said.
“I hate to get in an argument with the farmers and ranchers but it is the law.”
Violating the tax rule is classified as a misdemeanor and can be punishable by up to a year imprisonment and/or a $1,000 fine.
But New Mexico Livestock Board Director Myles Culbertson said he can’t remember anyone ever being prosecuted for not paying, even though it’s been a known and frequently talked about issue in the state for years.
“I suppose citations could be imposed but I don’t know how many resources or how much time and money (it would take),” he said.
“We’ve got to rely on the livestock owners and they’ve got to be straightforward enough to operate what has largely been an honor system. It is their duty and it is the law to render their animals for the mil levy.”
It’s not just Curry County.
While cattle are easier to count, he estimated there are thousands of horses in the state and only a small percentage on record.
The intent of the mil levy is to support the infrastructure of the livestock board and accounts for about a third of his agency’s budget, Culbertson said.
“We’re pretty highly dependent. That’s one of our major revenue sources,” Culbertson said.
“I know that the counties are burdened with collection (and) we certainly understand the problem with collections.”
Culbertson said he doesn’t know the answer.
Whether more discussion with counties, public education or other measures would help, he said, “It’s not a thing that’s been solved in the last (several years) and the same sets of problems keep presenting themselves. The enforceability of that kind of mil levy is very difficult.”