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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

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