Like many Spokane County residents, Larry Hartley fears his property tax bill.
The taxes he pays on his modest, split-level Valley home increased nearly 50 percent since Hartley bought the place nine years ago.
“Where does it end?” asks Hart ley, 43, staring at the 1995 tax bill that says his home jumped $8,500 in assessed value since last year.
“If they keep going at the rate they’re going, they’re going to push me right out of here.”
For 16 years, Sam and Candee Compogno squeezed by, raising four children on his teacher’s salary. The escalating property tax bill on their north Spokane home was partly responsible for sending Candee Compogno back to work last year.
“The whole time we’ve been married, people asked us ‘How do you manage to get by?”’ Candee Compogno says. “We managed for 16 years. This year, we became a two-income family.”
For years, home values idled alongside the Spokane economy. A 1990s growth boom and increased government spending - coupled with a shift in the way property is assessed - sent Spokane’s taxing system into shock.
While the assessor’s office moved from revaluing properties every four years to an annual, computerized update, assessments didn’t change and property taxes languished in a nearly three-year moratorium.
Tax bills crept upward. Some even dropped.
That changed last year. Homes that hadn’t been reassessed in at least three and possibly six years leaped in value to match the market, leaving homeowners staring at tax bills that jumped 20, 40, 60, even 80 percent in one year.
This year, most homeowners saw yet another tax increase.
“They’re getting carried away,” says Greenacres resident Betty Ellis, whose home doubled in assessed value between 1993 and today, from $73,700 to $147,200. The accompanying tax bill jumped 85 percent, from $1,412 to $2,404.
On top of her property tax bills, the mother of six is dealing with higher costs for everything. “It doesn’t leave much for us, and they’re telling me next year it will go up again,” says Ellis, 61.
Ellis and her husband, Charles, a retired contractor, built their home 23 years ago, spending $19,000 on the 2.5 acres and building materials. “At this rate, in 10 years, I’ll have paid for my house again in taxes,” she says.
County Treasurer Linda Wolverton says that people paying their taxes may grumble about them, but their anger is far less than last year. “They’re still not happy about the increases this year, but they’re just kind of paying them.”
No one avoids the increases, not even public officials - although their view may differ from most.
The value of County Commissioner Steve Hasson’s home jumped 50 percent between 1993 and today, from $76,200 to $117,300, bumping his tax bill nearly $500.
Hasson takes the increase in stride, saying he and his family benefit daily from their home’s higher value. Last year, they refinanced their house at a lower interest rate and bought a new Honda Prelude.
“We were able to recoup the money as a consequence of refinancing,” says Hasson, adding that people are “full of beans” who say they can’t “gain anything without selling.”
City Councilman Orville Barnes doesn’t share Hasson’s opinion.
“That’s not good logic,” Barnes says. “That’s the bureaucrat’s answer to the thing.”
Barnes is one of only a handful of city or county officials who talks about a need for “property tax relief.”
“Too many people are struggling like hell to get by,” he says, adding that government needs to take a closer look at its costs and make the same cuts homeowners are forced to make.
A proposal to cut state-levied property taxes by 10 percent passed the Republican House but died in a Senate committee. Critics of the measure say it benefited big business, not homeowners.
Hartley fumes when he hears so few elected or appointed officials talking about tax relief for the little guy.
Since 1988, the taxes he pays to local schools jumped 74 percent - from $294.12 to $511.15. Those he pays to the county jumped 30 percent - from $111.87 to $146.26, to the library another 75 percent - from $30.48 to $53.61.
“And then they want me to vote for a juvenile hall and new schools,” says Hartley, whose salary has remained fairly flat the last few years.
“Taxes are a fact of life, and you have to pay your fair share,” he says. “I just want government to be fair, too.”
The amount of money local governments take in continues to increase faster than the cost of living.
Inflation in West Coast cities Spokane’s size increased on average 4.5 percent in the 12-month period ending in February.
The levy set by the City Council will bring in about 7.2 percent more this year than last. The levy set by the County Commission will haul in 10 percent more than in 1994. A levy approved by Spokane School District voters will take in 20 percent more - due in part to the state Legislature raising the local levy lid for schools by 4 percent.
In times of economic growth, governments reap benefits both from increased property values and new construction. State law keeps a cap on levy rates, and governments can’t increase their property tax haul more than 6 percent over the previous year - not including the money they get from the new construction.
Officials say past years of frozen values pushed governments to the limit. Costs went up, but budgets stayed the same - or even fell.
Right now, they say, they’re just making up for lost time.
Many property owners “had a free ride for about a four-year period, then a big price rise occurred,” says City Manager Roger Crum. “Most people who are rational may not like (the increases), but they understand it.”
Unlike states like California, property taxes here make up a small portion of government budgets, Crum says.
The city’s regular levy will bring in about $19 million in 1995. Running the fire department alone costs about $20 million, leaving other taxes, fees and revenues to pay the balance of services.
“That doesn’t pay for libraries, parks, etc.,” Crum says. “You have to look at how the cost relates to city services.”
Crum, whose South Hill home jumped in value from $118,500 to $178,100 between 1990 and 1995, says he’s sympathetic to homeowners’ concerns. “From a property tax standpoint, I don’t want to pay taxes either.”
The Compognos knocked 2 points off their interest rate when they refinanced two years ago, and their mortgage payment dropped $70 per month.
The savings was short term. In 1994, their tax bill went up 33 percent, nearly wiping out the gain. “We can’t win for losing,” Sam Compogno says.
Indian Trail resident Robert Mulvey, a real estate appraiser, hates to see his property tax bill skyrocket, but says he knows values were far too low for way too long.
“It’s a catch-up game right now,” he says.
Some residents wonder if a tax revolt like California’s is brewing here.
In that state, desperate taxpayers led voters in the mid-1970s to approve Proposition 13, which limited property taxes. Now, a property reassessment can’t increase by more than 2 percent each year, unless the property changes hands.
For Spokane, it’s not a matter of if taxpayers revolt, Barnes says, “It’s when.”
The tax bill on Barnes’ South Hill home jumped $700 since 1993.
“In my case, I’m lucky that I have enough income that I can pay it,” he says.
Right now, homeowners like Hartley are trusting with fingers crossed that government throws a lasso around runaway property tax bills.
If they don’t, he says, he’ll be happy to lead a revolt that limits increases to cost-of-living hikes.
Greenacres resident Ellis says she’ll join him.
“Whoever the guy is who’s going to fight, I’m going to stand right beside him,” she says.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TAX DEADLINE The last day to pay the first half of 1995 property taxes is May 1. Interest and penalties will be added beginning May 2.