July 2, 2009 in Washington Voices

Property owner loses tax reduction

Mount Spokane man owes no back taxes
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Mount Spokane-area resident Bob Webb has settled his dispute with Spokane County Assessor Ralph Baker over Webb’s participation in a timberland tax-reduction program.

In an overhaul of several loosely managed tax breaks, Baker tried in August 2007 to remove Webb from a program for owners of 20 or more acres of timberland.

A previous assessor enrolled Webb’s property in March 1979, but Baker found records showing almost a half-acre had been removed from Webb’s supposed 20-acre parcel in 1906 to build Tallman Road.

Webb appealed to the Spokane County Board of Equalization, which overturned Baker’s decision. The board reasoned, in part, that fairness required the county to live with its mistake. Baker appealed to the state Board of Tax Appeals.

The board was to have conducted a hearing June 15, but Webb said he agreed to withdraw from the timber tax program when Baker offered a deal that will allow him to avoid paying back taxes. Webb said his University Legal Services attorney thought a changing legal landscape made it “pretty risky” for him to keep fighting.

Baker’s office discovered a survey showing Webb owned only 18.9 acres. Modern methods often find errors in frontier surveys. Also, a previous Board of Tax Appeals ruling indicates an acre could be subtracted for Webb’s home, leaving him about two acres short of the threshold.

A new state law that took effect Saturday makes it easier for assessors to strip people such as Webb of their tax deferrals. But the law also specifies that no back taxes can be collected from people who entered timber, farm and open-space programs improperly but in good faith.

Webb said he decided to settle his case when Baker offered to let him withdraw without penalty under the new law. He said Baker agreed to let him remain in the program until the end of the year.

Webb could transfer to another program for owners of smaller parcels of timberland, but he didn’t want to do that because rules require more management for small parcels than large ones.

“I don’t need anything else to do,” Webb said.

“I think the whole thing works out very well for both parties,” Baker said. “All along, we said we didn’t want him to have to pay back taxes.”

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