October 27, 2006 in City

GU coach faces back taxes for home left off county rolls

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Gonzaga University’s head basketball coach will face a five-figure bill for back property taxes early next year because of a bureaucratic mistake, Spokane County officials confirmed Thursday.

Construction was finished on Mark Few’s $472,000 home in February 2004. Yet it was not placed on the tax rolls. That means for 2005 and 2006, when Few could have been charged taxes on the land and a home, he only paid on the land, saving him about $6,000 a year until the problem was caught this month.

The issue became magnified this week when county Assessor Ralph Baker pulled all property information off his Web site in response to a KREM television report about 12 structures, mostly southwest of Spokane, that were left off the tax rolls. KREM did not name Few in its report that ran Tuesday evening.

Few, who reportedly earns $400,000 a year, was under no legal obligation to report his new home to tax collectors. He did not return calls seeking comment Thursday, and it is unclear whether he was even aware of the mistake that will force him to pay three years’ worth of taxes in 2007.

Baker said Few’s home was left off the rolls because the land had been subdivided from Fairmont Memorial Park, a cemetery that is tax-exempt. When the city of Spokane sent the building permit on the home to Baker’s office, it was labeled under the cemetery’s parcel, and so employees assumed it was tax-exempt.

Baker said he has never met Few and had no idea his home was not being taxed until a television reporter brought it to his attention.

Critics, including many in real estate and related businesses, have said Baker was oversensitive to the TV report. Problems with data could have been solved without blocking access, they said.

“I wish the site could have been left open so all of us in business could continue our daily activities,” said Rod Russell, a Farmers Insurance agent who uses the site to give homeowner insurance quotes to customers.

But Baker said he was concerned that employees in his office may be purposely leaving property off the rolls to create election issues. He noted that the employees’ union endorsed Democrat Judy Personett, whom he faces in the November election.

“My concern was that union people had created this situation,” Baker said. “There’s kind of an element of worry on my part that these parcels were purposely not put on the roll.”

Still, Baker said some of the homes likely were missed because they were constructed without permits. He said others may have been left off because a county appraiser was fired around the time some of the houses were built. That employee may not have returned all his files.

Personett said Baker’s fear that his employees are sabotaging his campaign smells of paranoia. Further, Baker has no business capriciously pulling a tax-supported operation, she said.

“His taking the Web site down as a result of criticism displays an immaturity and a temper that I would not expect out of an administrator,” said Personett, who leads the Washington state nursing commission.

Baker said he expects the data to return to the Internet today as long as checks of the system don’t turn up many missing properties. His staff is comparing the database with lists of addresses that receive sewer or power bills, a check that did not require the information pulled from the Web to be completed.

“Everybody take a pause, take a pill for a minute and we’ll get this back up as soon as we have a better feeling about the quality of our data,” Baker said. “It’s only been two days.”

The property search site is the county’s most used Web page. Although he has often pointed to the Web site as one of his proudest accomplishments as assessor, Baker said Thursday he’s been surprised by the negative response to pulling it.

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