Opinion

An issue of fairness: Assessor makes a case for boost in department's budget | Guest Column

By CHARLES ZALMANEK
County Assessor

Recent articles in local online media have focused on certain assessment programs available for land managed for commercial forest or agricultural purposes or for preservation, which allow the land to be appraised for tax purposes at its “current use,” rather than its “highest and best use.”

This means that landowners enrolled in these programs receive a reduced assessment and pay less tax in exchange for managing the land as agreed.

It does not mean that taxes are not collected from land in current use programs, but instead that the taxes that would have been paid on land assessed at their “highest and best use” value are shifted to other taxpayers.

In 1968, voters in Washington state approved amending the state constitution to allow “current use” assessments and in the early 1970’s laws were enacted creating Designated Forest Land.

The purpose of these laws is to maintain, preserve, conserve, and otherwise continue in existence adequate open space lands and forest lands for the production of food, fiber, and forest crops and to assure the use and enjoyment of natural resources and scenic beauty for the economic and social well-being of the state and its citizens.

As long as the participants in these programs follow the appropriate rules, we all benefit under the legislature’s foresight. When the participants do not comply with the rules, all other taxpayers are unfairly forced to pay property taxes on behalf of these non-compliant participants.

The law requires owners of properties enrolled in these special assessment programs to:

- Commercially farm the land if it is in the Farm & Agricultural current use program.

- Grow and harvest trees if the land is in the current use Timber or Designated Forest Land program.

- Preserve resource land as outlined in the open space agreement if they are in the Open Space program.

- Notify the assessor when there is a change of use of the land.

The Legislature has charged assessors' offices with monitoring compliance with each program (RCW 84.33.140(5)(d)(i) and RCW 84.34.108(1)(d)) by way of physical inspections and informational requests because not every participant notifies the assessor when previously compliant land use is discontinued.

Unfortunately, the assessor’s office has not had the staff necessary to support this function for many years.

As a result, there are properties enrolled in the Farm and Agricultural program where little or no farming occurs and forestlands where the land is not managed for growth and harvest of trees. Taxes that should be paid for these properties are being unfairly shifted to all other San Juan County taxpayers.

The assessor has requested financial resources for 2011 that are necessary to investigate and correct these problems of non-compliance. On Tuesday, Nov. 30, at approximately 11 a.m., the County Council will hold their final budget hearing.

Taxpayers concerned with this unfair tax shift are urged to share their concerns by participating at this important budget hearing with the County Council.

— Assessor Charles Zalmanek may be contacted at 378-2172.

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