Sound Off: Assessor’s not to blame

By Tom Baenen

Island County’s tax system complies with all prevailing laws. The increase in property values is not under the Assessor’s control. Buyers and sellers set the market. The Assessor uses the transactions in the market place to establish his best estimate of property values.

The Assessor and his staff have nothing to gain from any manipulation of market data or property values. When values go up, tax rates go down. Island County’s average rate for 2003 equaled $9.84 per $1000 of value, 2004 equaled $9.30 and 2005 equaled $9.10. If values go down, rates go up. The rate is a matter of dividing a taxing district’s budget request by the district’s assessed value. The Assessor does this simple mathematical calculation, makes certain it does not exceed any legally established limits, and adds that district’s rate to the other districts’ rates. Each taxpayer’s overall rate is the total of all the individual tax rates in his or her taxing district.

Island County serves as the collection agency for all the various taxing districts. The taxes collected are distributed to the individual districts according to their approved budget. The County General Fund’s 2005 tax rate is .0722550 per $1000. Conservation Futures 2005 rate is 0.006250 per $1000. The County Road Fund 2005 rate is 0.86128 per $1000. Of the county’s 2005 average tax rate of $9.10 per $1000, only $1.59 goes to Island County. The other $7.51 per $1000 goes to fund the goods and services provided all the county citizens by the various taxing districts, i.e. schools, hospitals, fire districts, parks etc. It is obvious that the individual citizen’s elected or appointed to serve on various taxing districts boards and commissions have the control, not the assessor.

Island County’s tax systems are equitable under the prevailing law. It is the same as all other annually valued counties in Washington. It is also challenged by growth, a limited supply of land, an increasing demand for property and consequently, rapidly escalating property values.

As the Assessor, I expect to find myself frequently the target of upset taxpayers. Taxes have always been a disagreement-fostering subject. Recent accusations and innuendoes about the staff of this office, however, are completely unfounded and untrue. Your friends and neighbors that work in the Assessor’s Office pay the same taxes you do, based on the same increasing value, and have nothing to gain over any other citizen.

I have not blamed an inequity on a “lack of staff.” I have told the Island County Commissioners for a number of years that the Assessor’s Office is technology driven. If it does not have a stable, reliable, well-functioning system, it cannot complete on time the procedures required to provide the County and its taxing districts with revenue. Time compromises are directly related to the cost of producing the property tax revenue. A system requiring constant monitoring and tinkering is time consuming and costly, and its dependability is in question. Each year, we fall further and further behind in making our mandated deadlines.

The question is, “When will the Assessor’s system be completed?” Staff members are stretched, but without good tools and equipment, no amount of staff increase will solve the problems. The commission chairman “has admitted that something has gone wrong in the Assessor’s Office, but cannot identify it.”

I do not believe I could have been calling the commissioner’s attention to the problem any louder for the past few years. The State Auditor’s reports have pointed it out. The Department of Revenue audit reports have pointed it out. Now let’s address the matter.

Tom Baenen is Island County Assessor.

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