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Flawed values send 900 to appeal

Coupeville resident Pat LaMont hadn’t even opened her 2005 tax bill, but she knew it was wrong.

After a nearly six-month struggle with the Island County Assessor’s office and the Island County Board of Equalization, her 2004 property value assessment had finally been corrected, but then 2005’s arrived.

“I had also gotten the 2005 assessment and it was even higher than it originally was last year,” she said.

This year, she will join the more than 900 people who have filed claims with the Board of Equalization, the body tasked with hearing the appeals of property owners who feel that their assessments are wrong. Assessments slipping into the last month of the year and miscalculated bills have county residents irked.

Island County commissioner Mike Shelton said that the system is flawed, but he is not sure how.

“There’s obviously a problem,” he said. “I think, from a historical perspective at least, the process has taken longer and pushed us back longer into the year.”

Shelton said that the rapid increase in real estate values has also created a surge of people challenging their assessments.

Island County Assessor Tom Baenen, whose office is tasked with determining property values and the levy rates, said that the problem is purely that of a staffing issue.

In 1995, the total taxable value of property in Island County was $4.86 billion and the assessor’s office had 21 employees to appraise property. Last year, $8.64 billion worth of property was assessed by 18 employees.

“All of that new cost necessitates a field visit,” Baenen said. “What you’re seeing is just the results of the very dramatic increase of work.”

But for Island County residents, the problem is the delay that has developed in the timing of property value assessments. They are sent later than in the past, and are frequently error-laden, LaMont said.

“As a taxpayer, I really don’t know how it’s supposed to be done, I just know it’s not right,” she said.

She claimed that the assessor’s office inflates values to suit its needs.

“I feel like the whole place is as crooked as can be,” LaMont said. “They figure out how much money they need and work backward.”

Baenen said no rule exists that mandates when assessments must be sent out. The dispersion of the revaluation notices must be followed by a 30-day appeals period. He said he does, however, have a target date. Baenen said he aims to have revaluation notices sent out during the second half of September.

The reason for that is an attempt to streamline the revaluation process, he said. Revaluation of existing properties should be finished by the end of May, which must be followed by the 30-day appeals period. New construction, however, can be counted until the end of July. If the county sent out revaluation notices, followed by new construction notices, it would be required to resend the revaluation notices and have another appeals period.

“We have chosen to make one mailing after new construction is completed,” Baenen said.

Fixing the system

Baenen said that part of the solution lies in updating the technology used in the process. But the majority of the problems will go away once staffing levels are adequate, he said.

“The only way we’ve been able to keep our heads above water is with the technology we’ve been able to put together,” Baenen said. “But all of the technology in the world doesn’t help if you don’t have the personnel to use it. I don’t have any technology that will go out and measure a house.”

But Shelton said the root of the problem has yet to be identified.

“Frankly, I don’t know what the problem is,” Shelton said. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily an error, it’s just the timeline expectations and the tax payers are right — it is too long.”

Shelton said that technology should play a role in fixing the delays in the system, but that is not the only aspect of a solution. When errors, such as a miscalculation of a levy rate occur, he said he does not know who is at fault.

“If I knew the exact solutions, I would have already attempted to implement them already,” Shelton said. “Technology is certainly part of the solution, but I don’t think it’s the whole answer.”

LaMont said she has already prepared herself for her annual trip to the Board of Equalization. Each time, she said she spends at least 10 hours preparing for the hearing, in addition to her time making phone calls to the county offices.

“But the phone calls don’t take very long, because they tell you ‘no’ almost right away,” LaMont said.

She said that for now, she will continue to fight for the value and the property taxes she thinks are fair. But in the future, she said she might not have the energy to argue.

“I guess I’ll just go until I get tired, then I’ll give up like others do,” LaMont said.

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