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County assessor will run for third term

The man who figures your property tax rates every year, and takes the heat for it, has decided to throw his hat in the ring and run for a third term.

Island County Assessor Tom Baenen announced Thursday he will seek re-election in November. Baenen, first elected to the office in 1994, is running unopposed.

A Republican candidate residing in Greenbank, Baenen said in an interview Thursday he feels there are still a number of goals he wants to accomplish within the assessor's office, including increasing efficiency, cutting costs and opening up channels of communication with the residents of the county.

"I believe that there are a number of things yet to be accomplished in the assessor's office that will be of benefit to the citizenry as well as the county itself," he said. "I look forward to an opportunity to address that."

Baenen, a former real estate agent who has lectured on that subject at various schools, including Washington State University, said he's sought to achieve the qualities of "fairness, equity, courtesy and compassion" within his office, and that if elected he will continue to work toward a "taxpayer centered" department. He added that he has strived to provide "the most fair and equitable tax base for all the taxing districts in Island County."

In looking for ways to economize and improve efficiency, Baenen said, he's worked to integrate new technologies in the assessor's office, his largest project being the creation of a digitized parcel map that does away with hand cartography and the burden of paper maps.

The digitized map of the county, he said, is about 80 percent complete.

Baenen, who earned an economics degree at St. John's University, said the county's recent budget difficulties present obstacles to efficiency within his department, which already has lost one employee to budget cutting each of the last two years. At a recent budget meeting, the assessor told the Island County Board of Commissioners his office would have a tough time overcoming the loss of yet another full-time employee.

"That would be a tough thing to deal with," Baenen said, adding that if he loses another worker in 2003, he might have to "let slide" some assessor's functions that are not mandated by statute.

Steps have been taken over the last couple of years to cut costs without "sacrificing efficiency or equity" within the assessor's office, Baenen said. These include the consolidation of duties, the elimination of certain tasks through technical innovation, and standardizing a number of processes and procedures, which, he added, "has cut the amount of physical labor attached to those various programs and procedures."

Baenen said such cost-saving measures have been accomplished during a time of growth and increasing expenses. Postage rates, one of the assessor's major expenses, along with the number of parcels that need to be appraised, have both increased by 20 percent during Baenen's time in office. And despite his success at dealing with such budgetary challenges, Baenen said, it's certainly not time to rest on one's laurels.

"I don't think you can ever sit back and say, 'We're there,'" he said. "The population and their needs change."

High on Baenen's list of priorities for a third term is the ongoing project of opening up channels of communication within the assessor's office. He said he wants the general public to have easy access to his department, with the goal of keeping people informed.

"Taxation is a misunderstood subject," he said. "Its explanation needn't be complicated, but many times, it is. The valuation process, which is one of the key ingredients in the program of taxation, is confusing, and it leads to misunderstanding."

Baenen said he'd like to minimize such misunderstandings. He said his responsibility is always to keep the public informed.

"This is their office," Baenen said. "I'm their elected official. I hope they will call on me anytime that they have any questions that I might be able to answer regarding this office and the role it plays in the county."

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