Langley pays fire district tax too soon

"Officials have come up with a fix for a rare problem -- the government wants to give some money back to the taxpayers.Of course, the money shouldn't have been taken in the first place. The error occurred this year in Langley, where property owners were assessed for Fire District 3 taxes. In fact, those taxes should not have been levied until 2001.The confusion dates back to last November when Langley voters agreed to give up their independent fire department and be annexed into Fire District 3, which covers the rest of South Whidbey. Langley and the fire district had reached an agreement in which FD 3 would start collecting taxes in Langley in 2001.Instead, the Island County Assessor's Office billed Langley property owners for the tax this year. The FD 3 tax rate for 2000 is 83 cents per thousand, so a person with a $200,000 home would have paid $166 too much in taxes.The mistake was first noticed when the tax statements came out last April, but there was nothing close to a public outcry. In fact, Langley Mayor Lloyd Furman and one city council member were the only ones to report the error.I just couldn't believe that more people didn't (notice), said Furman on Friday.The first thing Furman did was notify Don Smith, chief of the fire district. The mayor told me and I said, 'Oh boy, how do we fix this'? Smith recounted on Friday. We're all geared up to take money from people, but we don't have a mechanism to give it back.The next stop was the office of Tom Baenen, the Island County Assessor, who was unaware of the problem until then. Soon the state Department of Revenue was brought in to help handle the situation.After months of meetings, it was decided there was no choice but to collect the full tax in 2000 and credit taxpayers the same amount in 2001.Langley in 2000 kicked in $93,207 to Fire District 3, Baenen said Thursday. That's what we'll give back.Baenen emphasized that Langley property owners should pay the full amount of their taxes this year. When City of Langley taxpayers receive their tax statement for the year 2001 they will see a credit equal to the amount collected in error in 2000 to be applied to their tax due in 2001, Baenen said in a written statement.The solution was reviewed and approved by the state Department of Revenue, Baenen said, as an equitable and expedient way to correct the error.A memorandum of understanding signed by the Fire District 3 commissioners and the Langley City Council will assure that the taxes are properly credited. The fire commissioners approved the memorandum Thursday night, and the Langley council will consider it next Wednesday.Baenen said the error was made after voters approved the annexation vote last November. The following spring, map makers in both the county office and state office changed the taxing district boundary prematurely. Baenen described the error as inadvertent, but once the maps were changed the computer calculated the tax rates with the wrong information.Chief Smith said the public shouldn't blame Baenen. He's taking the hit for something that happened to a subordinate, he said.Tax bills were sent out in April, but all the taxes haven't been collected. Most property owners make two payments, the second in October. Baenen emphasized that they should make their full October payment and wait for the credit next year. If not, he said, that gums up everything.All agree that the solution isn't perfect, because Langley taxpayers could legitimately argue that they're losing a few dollars in interest on the taxes collected a year early. But the hope is they'll be understanding.Alternate solutions, such as lowering the tax rate for one year, were rejected because there is a statewide initiative that would partially freeze tax assessments if approved by voters in November.We just want to resolve it and make it right, said Smith. Please be patient with us. "

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