State audit slaps assessor’s office

A report released this week by the Washington State Auditor’s Office is critical of the Island County Assessor’s Office for a lack of adequate controls and procedures, leading to inaccurate tax bills being sent to citizens.

But Assessor Dave Mattens said the report doesn’t include any new information; just documents errors that were already widely publicized. He said he took the blame for the snafus and the problems were fixed.

“One of the appraisers made a mistake,” he said, “but the buck stops here and I think I handled it in the best way I could. I accepted responsibility.”

The audit finds that the errors occurred because nobody independently reviewed entries made by one person into the property tax computer program. As a result, tax bills had to be resent to Camano Island residents this year because the incorrect tax rate for the Camano fire department was used.

Then Coupeville School District officials discovered an error in its maintenance and operations levy, resulting in a loss of $158,000 this year. They will make up the loss in 2011 by increasing the tax levy an extra amount for a single year.

In addition, the audit notes that the assessor’s office was late with the certification of levies for the collection of taxes in both 2009 and 2010.

State law requires the certification to occur on or before Jan. 15 each year. But the assessor’s office didn’t file a certification until Jan. 23 of 2009. After an error was discovered, the office filed a revised certification on Feb. 6 of 2009.

This year, the office didn’t file the certification until Feb. 1. After an error was discovered, the revision was filed on March 10.

“The inability of the Assessor’s Office to ensure the Certification of the Levies for Collection of Taxes are completed timely and accurately impairs the ability of junior taxing districts to rely on the valuation information they use in development budgets,” the audit states.

Mattens said part of the problem is that his office received calculations from Snohomish County for junior taxing districts in both counties, as well as information from the state Department of Revenue, until December of the previous year. He said that was just too late for getting the work done by Jan. 15.

But the biggest problem, Mattens said, has been the outdated legacy computer programs that the office has had to work with. It’s so bad, he said, that the county’s central services received negative audits in past years due to the inadequate technology.

Most of the problems were solved, Mattens said, when the county finally implemented the True Automation property assessment and tax collection system this September. He said it’s a huge leap forward for the county and will allow the checks and balances that have been missing.

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