Sound off: Island County assessor is doing a good, honest job

By Al and Barbara Williams

Dr. Jerry Jenkins, Superintendent of the Northwest Educational Service District in Anacortes wrote a scathing criticism of Assessor Dave Mattens response to the assessing error that fails to collect all the taxes due the Coupeville School District (“Assessor’s explanation for levy error was misleading” 6/19/2010). Who can argue that assessing is a complex function? Mr. Jenkins’ article did a good job of establishing that. His main criticism seems to fault Assessor Mattens for not taking responsibility for the error.

But Assessor Mattens did take responsibility in a previous article for the error (www.pnwlocalnews.com/whidbey/wnt/news/93458919.html), and the Sound Off article Mr. Jenkins refers to is a more detailed explanation of the situation.

As property owners having occasions to question assessments, we watched the last assessor election campaign with interest and noted that among the candidates, Mr. Mattens’ primary intention was to improve the computerization of the assessing process. He won, and it appears that he has kept his word at least to the extent that budgets have provided. This alone has been a big improvement over the good ol’ boy, guess-and-by-golly assessing of the past.

Remember when our news was full of the “Boyer property” sale when a government consortium bought that property for some five times what it had been assessed over the years by the previous assessor? The sale price was based on a current property appraisal (another word for assessment) indicating that the Boyer property had been under taxed for years and years. How do you suppose that happened? Guess who had to make up the tax shortfall? Mr. Boyer had been a prominent Oak Harbor businessman/car dealer who apparently had more than just car sales connections.

But that’s not all. Back on March 26, 2005, Whidbey News-Times did a big article (www.pnwlocalnews.com/whidbey/wnt/news/22828894.html) about the errors of the previous Assessor Tom Baenen, who simply explained the problem as “purely that of a staffing issue,” while former Commissioner Shelton dodged the issue as a “flawed system” he didn’t fully understand. Those were days when the County Board of Equalization who resolve assessment disagreements was so overwhelmed with complaints that the assessing process was regularly set weeks and months behind schedule. At least Assessor Mattens went to the trouble of explaining the complexity more forthrightly than as just a “flawed system.”

Assessor Mattens explained that the error had nothing to do with normal assessing, but was due to confused reporting to his office. We all know that budget restraints have lowered staffing worse than ever and the work load hasn’t diminished, yet assessment notices are on time and it’s been reported that the Board of Equalization is getting fewer complaints. In either event, the temporary loss to the school district is about 8 percent of what they get from property tax, which, beside being temporary, is less of a belt tightening than most government agencies, including the assessors office, have had to deal with lately.

One thing we agree with former Commissioner Shelton on is how inherently flawed assessing is. People dealing with property appraisals know how much judgment and opinion is in them. Realtors have told us how they are able to “influence” appraisals. Our state would do well to get out of the continual re-assessing business and leave assessments at or near purchase price. Who could argue against the price they paid?

The primary beneficiaries of the current system are real estate companies who benefit from what they refer to as “mobility” when people are forced to move. The losers are property owners who don’t want to move, sell, or leave their homes but live in areas where real estate developers want to expand. What if assessments were frozen for anyone owning their primary home for say five or 10 years or more? It sure would be a benefit to our more stable citizenry while simplifying assessing, reducing “errors,” saving our counties a lot of expense, and stop a lot of “Tea Party” type complaining.

With an assessor’s election coming up, do you suppose the current criticisms are politically motivated and just early campaign rhetoric? Or was Assessor Mattens explanation “information overload” for some? In either event, let’s keep our electioneering fair. We think Assessor Mattens has at least included some honesty in a really bad system. We don’t want to go back to the “bad ol’ days.”

Al & Barbara Williams live in Oak Harbor

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