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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Staking Out the Election…

future tomato stakeThe late journalist and news anchorman David Brinkley, when asked about the press’s responsibility in regard to politics and the country’s political infrastructure in a free Democracy, said something to the effect: “Without the press, there would be no one to keep an eye on the politicians, absolutely no one at all.” Considering Brinkley’s high journalistic ideals, you might wonder if The Ripple is shirking its duties by not taking a stand on the political issues and candidates currently mixing it up in this election year’s campaign season. If that’s weighing on your mind, you don’t know The Ripple. The trivial, the esoteric, the mundane--everyday incidents that happen in the Valley—or elsewhere (like the man who accidentally swallowed a yo-yo or folks who gather the Valley weeds for their salad…real news of that nature is this journalist’s jurisdiction and The Ripple is there Johnny-on-the-spot to scoop the story. I suggest those so consumed by the current political folderol skip this post and spend their time watching the talking heads babbling away on CNN instead. So if you readers are tuned out by this post’s title, you needn’t be: The Ripple is proud to focus its political attention not on Donkeys and Elephants but tomatoes.

They’re sprouting up everywhere, and with such a variety of heirloom colors they readily catch the eye—along busy stretches of highway, every corner where a moving vehicle has to slow to make the turn, at stoplight intersections. Like random mushrooms they seem to shoot up overnight. From all appearances it looks like there’ll be a bumper crop this fall. politicized cornerIt’s a welcome sight for the tomato gardener who even after the first seed is sown is already looking ahead to next garden season.

My tease about tomatoes may have mislead you. The bountiful crop I’m talking about is not that plump, red fruit but wooden stakes. I’ve tried a variety of methods to string up my tomatoes. Tomato cages, those inverted wire cones, have proved a flimsy support for my Early Girl tomatoes that, blight excepted, may yield upwards of fifty pounds of fruit per vine. Early Girls are an indeterminate variety of tomato (and my favorite variety). That means the plant and fruit continue to grow until the late season shuts it down; the fruit doesn’t set and mature at the same time like romas or sauce tomatoes, for example. To support this variety, the method that’s proven best for this gardener is a sturdy wooden stake. I observed that Jeff Miller of Willie Green’s Organic Farms uses a wire trellis on which to secure each plant. Brandon Bischoff does the same on his little plot at Kelly Bolles.’ That’s a serious consideration if one were to plant a hundred foot or longer row of tomatoes. I, however, have a smaller plot and normally plant twenty or so tomato plants each season. A nice, sturdy stake at least three feet long is the means I use to prop up the vine. Some hemp twine wrapped around the main leaders of the vine is then knotted securely to the wooden stakes.Tomato stakes

My collection of stakes has come from two sources: real estate signs and, most plentiful of all, political signs. Three or four years ago approximately at five a.m. Saturday I would be awakened by a car slowing to a stop across the road. Then I would hear a “tap, tap, tap” of a hammer followed by silence. Next the sound of the vehicle moving on. Normally such an interruption would be an annoyance, but I tolerated it gladly for it meant one more free tomato stake for my Early Girls. Some real estate developer was advertising homes in his housing development—the name of the project escapes me—no doubt something quaint and nature-related like “Quail Run,” the construction of which most certainly scattered any resident wildlife to the four winds. For support, the signs were strategically placed next to a DOT highway sign post. Later that day I would cross the road, wiggle loose the sign, dispose of the signage and store the stake with its predecessors. If I didn’t do this on the weekend, come Monday morning the little white DOT dump truck (bed always empty) with its flashing yellow lights would remove both stake and sign: no distractions on a state highway. The economic downturn and decline in the housing market brought an abrupt end to that source of tomato stakes.

This election year’s selection of stakes shows potential. However, my stake harvest is tempered somewhat by politicians on the cheap (shallow war chests, I guess). Some are using those inexpensive thin wires to support their signs. Just a word to the wise, you politician skinflints: the slightest breeze from a passing vehicle blows your name recognition right down in the weeds; an eighteen wheeler will flatten your election aspirations to ground level. A word of advice from a nonpartisan (tomato grower): use sturdy wood to display your political aspirations. Just a few “tap, taps,” and your name will remain upright in everyone’s face  (if not memory) until the November election. As I said before, the gardener looks ahead to next year. The day after the election after the political dust has settled, I’m pulling up stakes wherever I find them.Staked out

The political machine grinds on inexorably; it has a life of its own just as we have ours. The fact of the matter is that about the only political support my tomatoes and I can really count on comes from these sturdy stakes. Besides, as far as the political affiliation the stakes display, tomatoes could care less: they, like all vegetables and fruits remain staunchly nonpartisan.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Smell of Summers Long Gone By…

Buddleia bushNot only do our five senses (or “5 wits” as they were called in medieval times, thus the saying “keep your wits about you”) serve us in real time but they are also powerful fonts of memory. This is especially true with our sense of hearing and past experiences with music. Not long ago I heard a piece of music on the radio and immediately was transported to a film we saw in 1973. The music was “Tubular Bells,” the theme from the movie “The Exorcist.” Quicker than a Google or Bing search the piece brought back vivid impressions of a little girl (played by Linda Blair) possessed by a demon called Captain Howdy. It was a movie that spawned nightmares for me for some time afterwards. What frightened me most—more than the hideous physical transformations the possessed little girl suffered, her heading spinning on her neck like a top—was the sudden loud thumping and banging that came from the attic of the house. After that film you were never again sure if your attic—any attic—basement, or crawlspace was safe.

Thank goodness not all sensory-evoked memories are unpleasant. I had one a few days back that recalled my boyhood and summer Augusts of many years ago. Three years ago, inspired by a friend in Pennsylvania, I planted a buddleia bush, and although gardeners and landscapers may refer to the plant by that name, most folks just call it a “butterfly bush” because of its appeal to butterflies. (It is interesting to note buddleia has been designated a Class B noxious weed by the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board.) Encouraged by my friend who had noted and identified some fifty species of butterflies nectaring on his bush and disregarding its notoriety I planted one myself. With a pair of sharp pruning loppers I figured I could lop the “nox” out noxiousness should the bush prove problematic.

The other day I decided to check the asparagus bed, which by the way is now a fern grotto, for a late season stalk or two. asparagus fern grottoTo access one side of the patch I had to pass by the buddleia bush, now in full bloom. The afternoon was a warm one and instantly the pungent fragrance of the bush doused me in memory. When I was a boy, my parents would load us kids in the car and for a week of Dad’s allotted two week summer vacation, usually the second week in August, we headed across the Cascades to the coast to visit the paternal grandparents a day or two before heading to the ocean beaches. The neighbor lady, a nice Philipino woman named Mrs. Adriatica, had as a centerpiece in her side yard landscaping a huge buddleia bush. The second week of August the bush was in full bloom and a hundred or so little orange skipper butterflies (common name “woodland skipper,” Ochlodes sylvanoides) thronged to the pendant-like lilac flower spikes for their nectar. In those days—as I remain to this day—I was fascinated with butterflies and would spend an hour or so watching these hyperactive little insects flit about from one plume to the next. The heady fumes of the buddleia must have seared my memory, I guess, because when I passed my bush that day all of a sudden I was back on Mrs. Adriatica’s lawn in the company of buddleia and butterflies, just a kid again in delighted wonder, spellbound by the spectacle.buddleia and friend

But then the years piled up one after the other and the fiery little skipper became a symbol of foreboding. Mid-August. The skippers’ arrival was a sign summer was in its waning days, the next school year just around the corner, and that meant going mano-a-mano with the Sophomores for another nine months. buddleia and skipperThe skippers and the Fair Days parade banner over Main Street spelled double doom to me. I would open the mailbox with dread, knowing any day the school district letter would arrive and seal my fate for another year. Our “Greetings” letter we teachers called it, a direct order to report to duty. Even though my exit from the halls of public education happened twelve years ago, I still get a momentary rush of panic when I see the first skipper of the season dart by. Why the buddleia then, you wonder, if its blossoms are skipper magnets, harbingers of the encroaching school year (I’ve seen at least a half dozen at a time on my bush)? I guess because it’s a “butterfly bush,”and I had hoped it would attract a number of Western Washington species. In that regard it has been a disappointment. Since the bush matured enough to flower, in our butterfly bereft Pacific Northwest environment I’ve only tallied five species to date. But the bush attracts fond memories, fosters nostalgia, doesn’t it? I planted the bush for the butterflies and got memories instead…not a bad tradeoff, I’m thinking.

Western tiger swallowtail on buddleia

Monday, August 13, 2012

Breakfast Out…in the Valley

tractor show promoIt’s again the season of old tractors in the Valley. The Tualco Valley Antique Tractor Show got underway last Friday. Sent out on assignment by The Ripple and chaperoned by Gladys, I wheeled up in front of  Elmer’s Kitchen and Bert Frohning, cup of coffee in hand, surveying the lay of old tractor land. I knew Bert retired last spring. “How’s retirement going?” I asked. Bert beamed a broad smile. Question answered.We chatted for a bit before I told Bert I hadn’t had breakfast yet. “I’ve already had mine,” I’m informed. I left Bert sipping his coffee and headed for the pancake line.Antique tractor extravaganza

Five dollars later I was served up my plate of pancakes, sausage, (two of each) and scrambled farm fresh eggs (two at least). My plate in one hand, a cup of steaming coffee in the other, I looked around the dining area for a place to settle and give my plate the attention it deserved. One table, except for a stocky fellow about my age, was empty. “Mind if I join you?” I asked, pointing to the chair opposite him. “Not at all,”he said, and down I sat.

The gentleman introduced himself as Max. Max wore a broad brimmed hat, the variety my dermatologist suggested I wear to shield my ears from the sun. He had a twinkle in his eye, a ruddy complexion-- the picture of good health- and a friendly smile. After we exchanged a few general comments (“great weather for looking at antique tractors”), Max pointed to three newcomers rolling by on a trailer. “Three nice Fords,” he notes, “like the one I have,” and launched into a lengthy treatise on that model’s gearbox (“It’s a Howard… made in England…very difficult to find a replacement”). I soon realized I was in the presence of someone who knew his tractors; I was definitely out of my league where these old workhorses were concerned. My limited experience with them, I shared with Max, didn’t go much beyond the tractor I learned to drive on the ranch where I grew up, a little, gray Ferguson four speed. Ferguson nostalgia “I’ve seen a couple this morning,” Max said. “Had a hard time getting the knack of backing up an orchard trailer with it,” I laughed and told him about the time I’d backed the left rear tire up on the trailer’s tongue and had to be rescued by an experienced tractor hand.

I told Max I was on assignment for The Ripple and would he mind posing for the next edition? He agreed. “How about including one of the old Fords just like yours?” Max thought that would be fine. As we strolled through the rows of shining relics, I learned more about my companion.Every kind imaginable He had come to the Valley from Camano Island. Max has been a pilot for years, he tells me. When I asked him what kind of planes he flew, he replied, “Just about everything.” Flying is a family thing, he said. His son is a commercial airline pilot. His daughter just graduated from the Air Force Academy. I told him about my uncle, a career Air Force man, who among other assorted military aircraft, flew C-124 Globemasters. Max smiled, nodded and said: “Old Shakey!” Apparently he knew his aircraft as well as his tractors. I’m surprised to learn he owns and maintains the Camano Island Air Park, a property he purchased from the travel agent Doug Foxx. “Yeah," he laughed, “I’m always checking the end of the runway for skid marks; it’s a short runway and if you overshoot it, you end up in the drink.” Max pulls up short by a shiny Ford. “Almost like mine,” he said, “except the gearbox is on the other side on my model.” I take their picture, thank Max for his time and conversation, and head out to gather more news.Max and friend

These old tractors, it’s obvious, hold an amazing appeal for many. Since The Ripple’s inception the post about Tualco Valley’s annual antique tractor extravaganza has received the most page views, twice as many as the second most viewed. As of this post “Got Old Tractor” (8/13/2010) has tallied 553 page views. Perhaps the key word “tractor” is the reason; internet search engines readily call up the word. But first the appeal has to exist. Take the audience that flocks to see these old workhorses. (Max shared that Tualco Valley’s show is just one of others he attends.) I come upon an elderly gentleman musing over a rusty antique. He is wearing navy blue cotton slacks, a long sleeved dress shirt and a ballcap. For a good while I stand and observe these two old timers. I would have given a couple of Elmer’s breakfasts to know just what was on his mind, back to what youth, what farm, what connection he had with that similar machine and am tempted to ask. Instead I defer to his reverie, leave him alone with whatever nostalgia he was awash in, just the two of them together, and move on.tractor show humor

The Tualco Valley Antique Tractor show is still evolving. Each year more participants come, vendors selling everything from barbeque to jams and jellies (every kind under the sun—except quince) and hooked rugs. There’s a blacksmith’s booth, hayrides (Max rode the circuit: “I thought I’d look things over from a little more height.” Just what you’d expect a pilot to say).  And events, of course. A gal named Cindy, astride an old tractor, pushed a plastic barrel around the course—a grudge match to best her friend Laura’s time.

(She did by three--tenths of a minute. “I saw you slip the judge that five dollar bill,” I tease.) Also, duck races for the kiddos, tunnels of pvc for the ducklings to float their way to the finish line. No wageringI’m attracted to the “pop, kapow” from a row of one cylinder engines, spinning wheels, turning gears, winch drums, pumping water and wander toward the noise. Among four or five men fussing over these antique powerhouses I find Dale Reiner standing next to a small donkey engine (pure coincidence, I’m sure). As we watch the handlers tend their machines, Dale embarked on what he does best: tell stories.
noisy pump
A recent Reiner family reunion was occasion to bring the old Reiner farm dinner bell out of mothballs (a thirteen incher, Dale tells me and adds: “Do you know a bell like that sells for fifteen hundred dollars these days!”Somehow I’m not surprised he knows this). This prompts a reminiscence from his boyhood when he used to hike to the top of High Rock, sit there, look out over the Valley and daydream. “About the day when all that would be yours?” I teased. “Yes, that’s right,” Dale replied. And you know, I think he was serious.

When the old bell tolled, Dale put his dreams on hold and rushed downhill to the dinner table. You could stand with Dale for hours and the stories would flow on and on, but this venue was a tractor show, and The Ripple needed to maintain its editorial focus. When the Reiner farm converted from equine to machine, the purchase was a diminutive Farmall Cub. “I was ten when Dad bought the Farmall,” Dale reflected. Reiner's relic“That’s the tractor I learned to drive.” He pointed down the way toward a trio of tractors, two of them spit-polished and gleaming, the third tractor, a very un-reddish brown and forlorn-looking machine, stood off a pace from the restored twins. “Which one is yours?” I asked. “The one on the right,” Dale said, and then explains the old relic’s provenance. During one of the Valley floods the tractor was submerged in six feet of water when the barn where it was stored was flooded. “I had just paid five hundred dollars to replace the rear tires,” he continued. “We had to tear the entire machine apart to repair the flood damage.” “Does it run?” I wondered. It does—and one of Dale’s grandsons will learn to drive it. Cub tractor

Before the Valley storyteller can sail into another, I leave him next to the coughing, popping donkey engine and stroll back through the aisles of oldtimers gleaming in their new paint and waxy sheen. Gladys is where I had parked her—unceremoniously by a pair of Sani-Cans not too far from two elderly ladies who were taking in the scene from their wheelchairs. To one of them I joked, “Thanks for not taking my bike.” Her response: “I never learned to ride a bike.” “That makes two of us,” I grinned as I steadied Gladys and we wobbled our way across the pasture….Tractor show inflation

As we teetered past the parking lot reader board, I noticed attendance fees had increased by a dollar this year. But no matter: the two lot attendants smiled and nodded at the official Ripple press card I flashed as I passed by. And Gladys? Well, she’s a vintage senior citizen, after all, isn’t she?Gray memories

Friday, August 10, 2012

Nixing the Noxious…

obnoxious weedThe Asian weed pickers were out in the Valley the other day. I posted about them last summer (“One Man’s Weed is Another Man’s Soup..or Medicine, 8/13/2011).Their foraging reminded me of a visitor our neighbors had the other day. While I was mowing the lawn, I noticed a white pickup slow to a stop at the neighbors’ mailbox. A woman carrying a handful of papers stepped out, looked around, hopped back in the pickup, and drove down their driveway. I watched the truck as it rolled to a stop. There was something official-looking about it, perhaps because of the official-looking writing on the sides. Still wielding her papers, the lady climbed the steps and knocked at the wrong door. The writing on the door of the truck…the handful of papers: “Tax assessor,” I thought and resumed mowing.

I nearly forgot about the visitor next door until I saw her wave goodbye to the neighbor and walk to her truck. Instead of a handful of paper she was carrying a bundle of greenery looking not the least bit bouquet-ish. In order to discover its “official business,” I trotted to the right-of-way as the truck left the neighbors’ driveway and passed by. On the side of the door were the words: “Washington State Noxious Weed Control” “Aha!” I thought. And now the backstory.

Three years ago the neighbors decided to plant a vegetable garden. They staked off a plot. A friend tilled it and prepared the soil for planting. The neighbors were excited about their new garden and planted a nice variety of vegetables from seeds and seedlings alike. To their dismay not only did the seeds sprout but along with them some obnoxious weed. The troublemaker literally furred the garden, grew so quickly in a lush, green carpet that it soon crowded the seedlings and choked the rows of vegetables. Thus began a summer of constant, aggressive weeding that seemed to accomplish little: one weed pulled, three grew back.

Last year and this season the weed made encore performances. After the spring tilling it came back with a vengeance, thick as moss. Small seedlings like carrots were so well buried in the weed, you couldn’t find them and were likely to pull the carrot sprouts up with the weeds. Where the pest was undisturbed, it grew to a thick mat eighteen inches or so high, then flowered.weed encroachment On a warm day the sea of tiny white blossoms gave off a cloying, pungent fragrance. Chuck, one of the neighbors told me, “I’m tired of fighting it. Next year it’s another small greenhouse and we’re bringing in topsoil to fill the raised beds.” Not quite ready to cry “Uncle” though, Chuck thought he’d contact the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board to discover just what obnoxious weed he’d been doing battle with the past three years. Thus the official white truck in the neighbors’ driveway.

Having on occasion plucked that weed from my own garden, I was curious about the plant myself. The next time I saw Chuck I asked him if he learned anything. “No,” he shook his head. “I need to call and find out.” I decided to investigate for him and set aside some time from my editorial duties, snapped some photos of the floral invader, attached them to my inquiry, and sent the email off to the Noxious Weed folks for identification.weed forest

I received a prompt reply from Wendy DesCamps of the Noxious Weed Control Board. The plant pictured, Wendy said, appeared to be Corn Spurry (Spergula arvensis) and sent me a link detailing the natural history of this plant. Spurries, according to Webster’s Ninth Collegiate, belong to “the pink family,”and S. arvensis is a common European weed. The site revealed this fact about Chuck’s nemesis: “Each plant can produce 10,000 seeds that remain viable for up to ten years.” “Ah, Chuck,” I thought, “looks like you have your own Seven Year War ahead of you.” Only  constant tilling and an aggressive spray program could subdue the spurry.

For you readers who might be weed-choked, the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board apparently will rush to your assistance—or at least answer your emails promptly. NWCB states a “’noxious weed’ is the traditional, legal term for any invasive, non-native plant that threatens agricultural crops, local ecosystems or fish and wildlife habitat.” According to the Board nearly half the listed noxious weeds are escapees from gardens and landscaping. The Weed Control board has listed three categories of noxious weeds. Weeds designated Class A in Washington State are required by state law (WAC 16-750) to be eradicated. Class B weeds may at the Board’s discretion be designated for removal. Counties, if they think necessary, may elect to eliminate Class C weeds they consider harmful to their counties. NWCB also has a quarantine list which includes all Class A noxious weeds and bans by law their importation to the state.

Other government agencies work in concert with the NWCB to do battle with the State’s noxious flora. The Department of Natural Resources and the U. S. Forest Service workers are periodically sent into the field solely for that purpose. In recent years, in a proactive move at weed control, the Forest Service has posted notices (reminiscent of our local apple maggot warning signs) at the egress to woodland roads accessing the high country visited by horse and mule trains packing in campers. The signs warn that only state certified hay is allowed to pass that point (no weeds allowed!).

Last week I spent a half dozen hours bug collecting along FS Road 7905 south of Tumwater Canyon. For hours my only companions were the towering Ponderosa pines and the rush of sound from a creek that cascaded down the mountainside. My solitude was interrupted when a big Ford king cab, canopied, eased its way to a stop opposite my little Toyota. The driver, a jaunty young man wearing an Aussie-style hat and a smile larger than he, hopped out and wanted to know what I was up to. I briefly explained my business and asked his, nodding toward the “XMT” designation on the vehicle’s license plate.Weed pluck truck “On the government payroll?” I asked. I’m told “yes” and the young man introduces himself as Tyler. Tyler and his motley crew of four (motley, yet happy) work for the Washington Conservation Corps and are on a mission to eradicate diffuse knapweed (Centaurea diffusa) from state forests’ roadsides. Today’s assignment: FS Road 7905 and since morning they have worked their way down to my site. Only a mile and a half to go and the pickup’s bed and canopy are already packed full of trash bags containing the plucked knapweed later to be deposited at a Forest Service disposal site. I asked Tyler if he was involved in combating the invasive Japanese knotweed west of the Cascades. (Japanese knotweed falls into noxious weed category B. The plant, previously used in landscaping because of its heart-shaped foliage, is one of those escapee species that’s bullied its way into the environment.) Valley knotweedThick coverts of the bamboo-like plant clog the roadside of SR. 203 between Duvall and Fall City. Knotweed is an excellent late summer nectar source for honeybees who readily forage in the creamy white flower spikes. The plant yields a flavorful, dark honey and is currently beginning its bloom cycle.) Knotweed, Tyler tells me, is rampant in the Skokomish watershed and the Conservation Corps is aggressively battling it there.Bee visiting knotweed

Tyler’s crew, plastic buckets and bags stuffed with knapweed, catch up with their ride. Three young men and a young woman make up the work gang. Exposed to a summer of eastern Washington sun, they are well-tanned and though it’s past noon, still energetic and enthusiastic about their work. The young lady, spotting my insect net, is curious about my activities. When I tell her I’m on the hunt for a certain butterfly, she shares that she herself is collecting dragonflies and donates her catch to Evergreen State College, her alma mater. She’s familiar with our State insect, the Green Darner dragonfly. Coincidentally as we speak, a fleet of fifty “mosquito hawks” provide us air cover. I point them out to her. I learn she has a degree in environmental science.  As if in apology she explains,“It’s just a general studies degree.” That’s ok,” I reply, “the environment’s just about everywhere, isn’t it?” Not only does she know about our State insect, but our State bird as well and proudly displays a larger than life tattoo of an American Goldfinch male on her upper arm. “It’s my favorite bird,” she boasts.

The weed pluckers took advantage of the diversion (me) to take a break. They loll about the truck and take deep pulls from their water bottles. I ask if I might make a digital recording of our meeting. They agree and request I take their camera and snap a group photo of them in return. They pose and I prompt them with: “Say ‘weeds.’” They smile. “One more,” I say. For the second shot I encourage the five with: “Say ‘weed’” and am rewarded with broad smiles this time—especially from the young lady. Then off they go, Tyler ahead in the truck, on down the road, the crew swinging their buckets after him, stooping now and then to grab a handful of knapweed, two per side of the road. As I watch them go about their work, I think how lucky they are to have such a summer job--out in the piney woods in the company of creeks and waterfalls and wildlife, plenty of exercise, fresh air and sunshine.govt weed pluckers

By the way Corn Spurry is not on any of the NWCB’s lists. According to Wendy the weed is a plant of cultivated fields and while it is indeed “obnoxious,” the weed has never been a problem to the State’s farmers. That may be so, Ms. DesCamps, but you’d have a hard time convincing the neighbors of that.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Rendering Unto Caesar…

County SnohomishOnce upon a time when the County had smaller government and enough money to fund it, County property values were assessed every several years. (Even though our house was built in 1975, our property was not assessed with “Buildings” until two years later.) That all changed ten or so years ago (2003 or thereabouts if memory serves). Then the County aggressively began adjusting assessments on the way to one hundred percent of market value. Nowadays the annual assessment for next year’s taxes shows up every June.

I’ve only seen the County assessors on our property once in the thirty-seven years we’ve lived here. A white SUV with its familiar County tri-colored tree logo pulled into our driveway one morning (I’m almost certain it was 2003), turned around and backed up to the end of the driveway where it stopped. Whenever an official vehicle of any kind appears on the property, I suddenly become hyper-vigilant. Out the door I went immediately to discover what these government interlopers were up to.

There were two occupants in the vehicle, the driver and his female passenger. Both already had their official-looking clipboards on their laps and were hard at work shuffling official-looking papers, and jotting down what I’m certain were official notes when I made my unofficial approach. I asked them who they were, what their official business was. That’s when I learned they were on county business; they weren’t tax collectors, they said, only collecting official information for the Tax Man. The wife and I had a water feature project in the works at the time and I remember asking the two officials if our labors in that area would affect our taxes.  “Only if you attach it to the house,” Ms. Official replied, flashing a very non-official smile. They made quick work of their official business and off they drove. Never once did they exit the vehicle even though our water feature may very well have been an in ground pool and spa on the other side of the house. I’ve not seen an assessor since…and it’s my guess I’ll not likely see an assessor on the place again.

Yet every June the new assessment arrives in the mailbox with new figures, the basis for next year’s taxes. These assessments by proxy (the County Assessor’s Office sends them out) raise a number of questions for me. But my main question is: “How, or by what formula, are my property taxes calculated?” County government, wishing to accommodate those who butter its bread,  in 2010 enclosed an informational page along with each new assessment. For taxpayers’ edification the back page included a “Property Tax Explanation.” In hopes County taxpayers were smarter than fifth graders, the Assessor’s Office posed this hypothetical situation: “Let’s say you own one house in a town of four houses (this is The Ripple talking, mind). And thus begins the fifth grade story problem. My household and the other three in this cozy, little burg of four (our houses must be in a housing development of four homes per town, each a blueprint copy of the other three). This story problem has four variables with a fixed County budget for each. The first, houses being clones of each other, are appraised at 100 K. Each household, as per the example, is assessed a $250 tax. Why? The County needs that much, that’s why; its annual budget is $1,000 (Hmmmm???) Next variable: houses worth 200 K. As per the fixed budget, obvious to any fifth grader, taxes remain $250 a property.

Up to this point the fifth graders are smiling. A piece of cake, this problem. But all this changes in scenario three: of the four houses, house A’s value drops 50 k, houses B and C remain at 200 K, and house D’s value jumps by 50 k. As per the constant budget of $1,000, house A’s tax drops from $250 to $187.50. Houses B and C pay $250 respectively while the palatial House D now pays $312.50. The fourth scenario sees the budget increase by ten dollars to $1,010 and the four houses’ value drop to 75 K. Each property’s tax increases to $252.50 to match the County budget.

At this point not only is the fifth grader puzzled, but his parents as well. The County’s neat little story problem glosses over one obvious value: what factors, schedule, parameters determine why in scenario 3, House A’s value declines while House D increases twenty percent? Does a halfway house for low level sex offenders move next to House A? Or is a Microsoft branch campus constructed on a property adjacent to House D? And why, for instance, in scenario four do all four homes’ values decline from 200 K to 75 K?

In the case of our property, since 2008 our assessed value has dropped  38 percent. (Percentages? I think I learned those in the seventh grade.) No great surprise there considering the bursting of the housing bubble and the consequent recession. Our taxes, however, have declined a mere 12.3 percent. I guess you don’t have to be smarter than a fifth grader to see the thinly-veiled message of the County’s quaint little story problem: my taxes—and yours—are budget driven; the budget is the true variable. Whatever the County decides its budget will be, it’s up to us taxpayers to pony up that amount.

What’s at issue here, at least for this taxpayer, is not so much having to pay taxes as making sure mine are proportionately equal. And why has my property declined by more than a third while my taxes have backed off only slightly? County assessments seem arbitrary and random to me. Wasn’t there supposed to be more transparency in government? As it assesses my property’s value, does the County consider the following factors:

* As  of 2010 our property now lies in the newly designated flood plain

* Our property adjoins a traffic-busy state highway that grows busier by the year

* Property to the north is a rental property. In spring the horse stables there breed a host of flies that descend in droves on the side of our shed and home. The property to the south includes a mobile home

* Our property has a mole infestation

* County tax rolls say our taxable property is 1.05 acres while our parcel description records only .88 acres

And why is the land value of our property currently only five percent less than the property to the south which is 2.3 acres, over twice the acreage as ours? (In 2008 our land values were assessed as equal!)

These are concerns I plan to share with the County Assessor’s Office. I would like the County to assure me that my property assessments and associate taxes are not just some random act of taxation, a little more piling on to pad the budget. And even if the assessments are budget driven, there must be some method by which the County determines what my fair share of it should be. Instead of their fifth grade story problem, a property tax calculator would be more helpful.

I suppose, of course, I could move to that quiet little four house town, build myself a new house. But wait…that would mean five houses, wouldn’t it, and mean a whole new story problem for that fifth grader. Dahlia season