Sound off: Island County Assessor’s explanation for levy error was misleading

By Dr. Jerry Jenkins, Superintendent

Northwest Educational Service District

In a recent “Sound Off” article written by Dave Mattens, Island County Assessor, a shotgun approach was used to place blame for the levy error on the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the Northwest Educational Service District (NWESD), and the ignorance of the taxing districts. Being the one holding the shotgun, Mr. Mattens did not get “hit” with any of the pellets of responsibility.

Interesting . . . plenty of blame, lots of self credit for fixing the alleged errors of others, but no apology. It is time for another perspective from one of the many parties Mr. Mattens targeted for the error that will delay funding to Coupeville School District during these trying economic times.

Mr. Mattens claims the root cause of the mistake was two documents received from OSPI and NWESD. He asserts the language in the documents was confusing. What he failed to mention is both of these documents are from the same templates that have been used for at least the last seven years (the state records retention period). The Coupeville School District levy rollback situation that confused the Assessor’s office this year also occurred in six of the seven prior years. In all of the prior rollback years, the Assessor’s office was able to successfully interpret the same language that “confused” them this year. The document from OSPI is used for all counties in the State without issues and the letter from NWESD is used in five counties with only Island County having difficulty understanding the language that it successfully interpreted in previous years. An extremely important role of a County Assessor’s office is to review and formalize the levy amounts. To do so, one would assume the person taking responsibility for the task would understand levies, how they are computed and the related commonly used language.

So, it appears time to go back to some basics. The referenced NWESD letter spelled out the three sources that are compared to determine the amount to be levied. Those three sources are the maximum levy authority as calculated by OSPI, the voter approved levy amount, and the levy amount in the school district’s board adopted budget. The maximum levy amount

calculated by OSPI was $158,461 lower than the voter approved amount which is commonly

referred to as the “roll back” amount. The levy amount certified by NWESD must be the lowest of these three levy figures. Both the OSPI document and NWESD document had the correct amounts. The NWESD letter certified the same maximum levy authority dollar amount as shown on the OSPI document. Unfortunately, unlike prior years in which the Assessor’s office accepted the correct amount certified by NWESD, personnel under Mr. Mattens’ supervision erroneously duplicated the rollback reduction. Mr. Mattens admitted to NWESD personnel in a phone conversation that they had not looked at the voter approved levy amount before deducting the roll back amount from the certified levy amount. Too bad; if they had performed that simple step, it would have noted the rollback had already been deducted — like in prior years. Another simple step that could have been performed if the previously clear language was confusing to them would have been picking up the phone and asking the NWESD. Or they could have had someone double-check the work done by others in the Assessor’s office in this all important levy setting action.

In the article written by Mr. Mattens, other assertions were made that also are either misleading or inaccurate. However, they lead off on tangents that do not have anything to do with the Assessor’s office error that resulted in the underfunding of the Coupeville School District’s levy.

We will not take further time to address them in detail other than to note:

1) NWESD personnel did not agree the reports are confusing and in need of updating (although we can consider simplifying the language for the Island County Assessor’s Office).

2) The NWESD was not informed of the change in the Clerk of Board so sent the letter to the County Auditor as required by statute. Both Mr. Mattens and the person who has been named Clerk of the Board were sent a copy of the letter at the same time the original was sent to the Auditor.

3) The recommended Department of Revenue Levy Certification Sheet does not meet legal requirements for school district levies or address the multiple levies a school district may concurrently collect.

At times all of us make mistakes, and during an election year, some are more painfully visible than others. However, the quality of a true leader is to accept responsibility where responsibility lies and to put in place processes to keep the mistake from happening again. We wish Mr. Mattens the best of luck in correcting the processes within the Assessor’s office.

Dr. Jerry Jenkins is the Superintendent of the Northwest Educational Service District 189 in Anacortes.

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