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Tax rate goes down, taxes go up

Island County’s property tax rate is going down.

The final calculations have been completed and the average property owner in Island County will pay $8.98 per $1,000 of assessed value on his or her property.

This does not mean, however, that the total amount collected is going down as well.

Island County Assessor Tom Baenen said that taxpayers will pony up approximately $7.9 million more than last year in taxes. This means that all of the taxing districts in Island County will fetch around $77.6 million in taxes during 2005.

The tax rate is determined by taking the total amount needed and dividing it by the value of the property in the county. Island County’s assessed value increased by more than $855 million, $220 million of which was new construction, Baenen said.

Tax rates vary across the county because the need is different in different areas. For example, people living in the Oak Harbor School District pay only $1.74 per $1,000 of assessed value in school taxes, while residents in the Coupeville School District pay more than $3 per $1,000 in school taxes.

Residents of Coupeville have the highest tax rate in the county, paying $10.68 per $1,000 of assessed value. This means that the owner of a property worth $200,000 will pay approximately $2,136 in property taxes this year. Residents of rural North Whidbey, however, will pay $7.26 per $1,000. That same $200,000 property owner will pay $1,452 in property taxes.

A lot of the taxes residents pay are self imposed, Baenen said. Across the county, between 23 and 41 percent of the total tax bill comes from voter- approved levies.

“People need to understand that when they vote for a levy, the next time they get a tax bill, it will be higher,” Baenen said. “People vote for whatever services they want government to provide for them.”

Of the taxes collected, more than half will go toward schools. Other areas are receiving a smaller piece of the pie. In 2004, Whidbey General Hospital and its emergency services received 5.34 percent of total taxes collected. This year, they will get 5.15 percent, or just over $4 million.

For those who feel their property taxes are too high, options do exist. Once every six years, a piece of property is reevaluated to determine its worth. If a property owner disagrees with the value assigned, he or she can appeal to the assessor’s office. Baenen said that this year approximately 1,500 people contested the valuation of their property.

Half of those chose to take their complaints to the next step. If an agreement can not be reached with the assessor’s office, the property owner can file an appeal with the Board of Equalization, an independent hearing board. But Baenen said that a majority of those cases will never actually go to a hearing because they will be settled.

Of the cases that go to a hearing, the assessor’s office prevails in approximately 60 percent of the cases. This does not mean, however, that the property owner always came out a winner. Baenen said that he has seen the value of a property increase, causing that person to have to pay more.

Other variables are at work keeping Island County’s tax bills high. Its four largest employers, Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, the school districts, Island County and Whidbey General Hospital are all tax-exempt.

“We have a very, very limited tax base in that it’s almost all residential,” Baenen said.

All things considered, what Island County residents pay in property taxes is a bargain, Baenen said.

“They affect everyone,” he said. “Taxes are high, but the services that are provided are pretty darn good.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Eric Berto at eberto@whidbeynewstimes.com.

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