"Bridge Views, Dec. 1"

"I’m never in a big rush to open mail that comes to my box with an “Island County Assessor’’ return address on it. So I had to rummage through a stack of credit card come-ons, Harry & David catalogs and political detritus to find my new assessment a couple of months ago after one of my neighbors called in a hot lather and asked me to find it.It seems that his home’s annual property assessment had shot up by a fairly hefty margin, and he was distinctly displeased about it. He wanted to know if mine had, too.Sho’ nuff. When I found the unassuming little “Assessor’s Notice of Change of Value’’ hiding under the latest weekend Bon ads, it told me that the value of my house had dropped by $2,100 or so. But the land it sits on mysteriously increased by more than $19,000 in the span of a year!There must be some mistake, I thought. Surely the new lilac bush I planted last summer wasn’t THAT spectacular.Was it the tulips? The fact that I finally cleaned the cocker poop off the back lawn?Thank God I hadn’t painted my house, I thought. My tax bill would rival Bill Gates’.Some sort of explanation was in order. So I followed the Great American Way, and complained to the wrong county official.County commissioners have nothing to do with assessing property values for tax purposes, but Mac McDowell was within earshot one day, so I asked him to tell me why my lousy, muddy little lot would be worth so much more this year, while my house actually dropped in value. I mean, I know it needs paint, but — shees!The explanation, perhaps predictably, took us through the looking glass and into the murky world of Washington state tax assessing.Y’see, this is what happens: The assessors (by studying comparable sales and, every few years, doing on-site visits and consulting a suitable array of chicken entrails) set a replacement value on your home and buildings. Replacement value really has little to do with the potential sales price, since you can’t sell a house without its land — but it helps to adjust values when buildings are damaged, destroyed or renovated.So what about the land? If the total market price of, say, all the three-bedroom homes sold last year on quarter-acre lots in your area jumped dramatically, yours would probably sell for more, too. Even if your house is a dump. So much of the increase in assessed value gets tacked on to your land.Thus, the $19,000 lilac bush in my back yard.Of course, just because your assessed value goes up, doesn’t mean your taxes will go up as well. Step a little deeper into the looking glass, and you find that total property taxes are determined after all government agencies issue their requests for increased revenue. (This year, most are asking for 1.42 percent increases.) The assessor figures the total value of all properties, then figures out how much needs to be raised per each $1,000 in property value to raise the government requests. Then he applies that rate to everyone’s assessed property value.In other words: Even though the value of my house and land shot up by 13 percent this year, if all my neighbors’ rose by 20 percent, and most others rose by even more, my taxes could actually go down next year.Right.Anyway, I decided not to follow my neighbor to the courthouse to protest my newfound paper wealth. I thought I’d take my assessment to the bank, instead, and talk to them about getting rid of that pesky mortgage insurance they charge me every month, since the assessor now says my equity in the house is a heck of a lot more than 20 percent.Of course, the bank has its own way of figuring property values ... and let me guess.Their way will end up costing me money, too.David Fisher is editor of the News-Times."

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