State law and property taxes | Letter

Excluding improvements and new construction, Washington State law prohibits a taxing jurisdiction from annually raising property taxes by more than 1.0% for its existing housing. The law applies to the entire jurisdiction but does not apply to individual properties in the jurisdiction. If the jurisdiction raises one property’s tax by 25%, it must lower another equally value-weighted property’s tax by 24% to maintain the jurisdiction limit of 1%.

The taxing jurisdiction applies this limit through the levy rate r. Let A1 equal the sum of property taxes from the previous year and let A2 equal the sum of assessments for the current year. Then the levy rate r follows from r*A2=(1.01)A1. Then for any property i, the property tax p(i) with assessment A(i) is p(i)=r*A(i).

The weak spot in the process is the assessments produced by the assessors. None of the assessors is a trained appraiser and none is exempt from misassessment or favoritism. When challenged over an assessment, no assessor is likely to admit fault and exercise correction. The weakness can be eliminated by replacing the assessors with a computer program with a direct link to a firm such as Zillow that supplies the assessments from which the computer calculates the levy rate and the property taxes. Then the county benefits by directing the assessors to more productive work or to the private sector.

This process strips bias and error from the assessors, but the process does not reduce the inequity of raising different property owners taxes by different amounts. Since Washington State law limits the taxing district from raising the district’s property taxes as a whole by 1%, San Juan County could extend fairness to property taxes by limiting each property’s tax increase by 1%. The amount of tax collection would not decrease but the discrimination would decrease. Then the shock, outrage, and gauging associated with the current assessments would vanish. The 1% limitation on individual properties would parallel California’s Proposition 13 which has universal approval among its citizens.

John Drake,

Friday Harbor