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Quarter of county land is taxable

At 5,315 square miles, Okanogan County is not only the largest county in the state but one of the largest in the nation. Yet its huge land base doesn’t translate into a treasure trove of taxable property that the county can use to pay for public services.

The U.S. Forest Service manages 44 percent of the county. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources manages nine percent, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife two percent and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation 20 percent.

Scott FurmanCounty Assessor Scott D. Furman says voters should have more specific information spelled out on the ballot when they vote on levies. - Photo by Solveig Torvik
That leaves Okanogan County Assessor Scott D. Furman to make do with a mere 25 percent of the county’s land base as taxable property - 900,000 acres held in 45,000 parcels. They’re worth just shy of $4 billion - $3.968 billion. And 35 percent of that value, $1.374 billion, is found in the Methow Valley, according to Furman.

Half of the property in the Methow is owned by people who don’t live here. County-wide, it’s one-third. This means a significant portion of the cost of the county’s schools, hospitals, fire departments, cemeteries, libraries and such are paid for by people who don’t use them, Furman says – a sizable subsidy that might offer some comfort to full-time residents as the next property tax payment deadline rolls around on Oct. 31.

An assessor’s lot is to take heat from irate property owners who think he’s wronged them. “We’ve been set up to be blamed for a lot of stuff,” he says. He jokes that the job of assessor explicitly was created to provide political cover for the people who actually run up the bills: lawmakers, bureaucrats and, last but by no means least, voters. They approve indebtedness for the county when they say yes to levies for school, fire, library, road, hospital, cemetery and emergency medical services taxing districts, though many complain they didn’t vote for the levies or argue they don’t personally benefit from the services levies pay for.

But assessors don’t spend taxpayers’ money, Furman reminds. The assessor’s job is to find the cash to pay the bills for all the things other people have agreed to go into debt for. Washington is one of the few states without a personal income tax, which means we rely mostly on sales and property taxes to pay for public services. Repeated attempts to enact more equitable taxing solutions have failed.

Appraisals formerly were made on a four-year cycle, but the law recently changed to require annual appraisals. Now, each year one-sixth of the county’s properties are to be physically inspected. The rest will be evaluated by a statistical check on sales prices and valuations; changes will be made annually if the market warrants, according to Furman.

Four appraisers - down one due to budget cuts - inspect 300 homes per month, some with a “broad brush” drive-by, others by knocking on doors, says Furman. They’re looking for any changes to the property description of record, he explains. Property sales data is factored in to determine market value, and sales prices are compared with the amount owners are paying in taxes.

“The last assessment at the end of May reduced all tax values by 10 percent on all property in the Methow Valley except in the town of Twisp,” says Furman; properties there have escalated in value. “Some people were surprised. They never believed I’d lower values,” Furman adds. In his fourth term, he’s been working in the assessor’s office for 27 years, and that’s the first time this reduction has happened. Oroville, another up-and-coming spot in the county, was the only other town to join Twisp in not having property values reduced.

About 100 property owners in the county appealed this year, he says, considerably less than last year, when 500 appealed.

To many taxpayers, the most confounding aspect of the taxing system is the levy rate. “It’s the tail that wags the dog,” says Furman. Taxpayers tend to focus on “taxable value” of their properties and miss the implications of the levy rate.

For instance, property owners in Winthrop have a lower levy rate than those in Twisp – $8.25 vs. $8.31 per $1,000 of assessed valuation in 2011. That’s because the total taxable value of the property within the Winthrop city limits is worth $30 million more than in Twisp, Furman explains. Everyone in Methow Valley School District 350 is subject to the same school levy rate, but because the total taxable value of properties within Winthrop is higher than in Twisp, a lower levy rate can be used in Winthrop to reach the sum that needs to be collected.

The average 2011 levy rate in the county is $9.84 per $1,000. But in Okanogan, it’s a whopping $12.95 per $1,000, the highest in the county. “We have a higher rate because we have a smaller tax base to draw from,” Furman explains. “If my house was one mile north of where it is, I’d be paying about $500 less a year in property tax” in Omak, says Furman, who lives in Okanogan.

The disparities caused by the difference in property values within taxing districts are particularly telling in the county’s school districts. Property owners in the Methow Valley School District pay only $1.65 per $1,000 to the district for debts incurred for construction bonds and maintenance and operations and the technology levies, while those in Okanogan pay $5.75 per $1,000 to meet that school district’s obligations. Okanogan School District’s total property tax valuation is $278 million compared with the Methow Valley School District’s $1.3 billion. (The Methow Valley School District isn’t deemed economically disadvantaged, so it doesn’t qualify for the $600,000 in state aid that Okanogan receives.)

Furman argues that taxpayers need more information in order to understand what they’re voting on at levy time. So he’s an advocate of fuller, more specific disclosure in ballot language, a change sought by the state’s assessors association.

The changes sought by the assessors would require taxing districts to, among other things, disclose on the ballot the dollar amount they want to raise. “We wanted them to state what they want to collect, what they used to collect, and what percent of change” it would be, Furman says.

However, nothing’s come of the assessors’ request to the legislature to require more specific information on levy ballots. That’s because lobbyists for school and fire districts persuaded lawmakers that it was a bad idea, according to Furman. Still, he notes, nothing in the law prohibits taxing districts from voluntarily disclosing this information on the ballot.

posted 9/20/11