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Editorial: Assessor’s office needs assessment of practices

Everywhere one turns, local government officials are agonizing over harsh budget cuts they must make because the economy has choked off their tax revenues. Every dollar matters.

That makes it especially disappointing to find out that the Spokane County assessor’s office hasn’t been getting some real estate on the tax rolls as promptly as state law requires – not just by accident but at least in part as a matter of office routine. Consequently, Spokane County and certain junior taxing districts have received less in property taxes than they were legitimately owed.

This disclosure comes from the Washington state auditor’s office, which discovered a pattern of problems at the courthouse after following up on a whistle-blower’s tip about new construction that was being added to the county’s rolls years late.

The auditors confirmed the whistle-blower’s claims in dozens of cases in the Cheney area, and they identified several others on their own. They also found numerous cases of undervalued properties, and they learned that appraisers weren’t requiring proof that the law expects property owners to provide when applying for tax exemptions based on age, disability, veteran status or income limits.

To make matters worse, some of these shortcomings resulted from following established office policies and internal directives. For example, even though the law requires a physical appraisal of new construction within a year of a building permit being issued, the assessor’s office’s standard practice was to hold off until construction was 40 percent complete on the belief that no real value had been added before that point. Yet when the state auditors looked into the situation, 71 of 157 parcels identified by the whistle-blower as being added to the rolls too late had taxable value of more than $100,000.

They also found 21 parcels with land values between nothing and $2,000 but occupied by taxable structures as valuable as $275,400.

The audit covered activities during 2008 and 2009 when former Assessor Ralph Baker was in office, but current Assessor Vicki Horton says the 40 percent construction threshold is common in many county assessors’ offices in Washington. If so, the issue bears a close look statewide.

Meanwhile, the auditor found at least two internal emails in which a supervisor in the Spokane County office said it was OK to process exemption requests even when the applicant didn’t show the proof required by state law.

How much in property tax collections went uncollected? How much extra load did some taxpayers have to shoulder to compensate for the shortcomings? The state auditors couldn’t say.

It probably wasn’t all that much, relatively speaking. But taxpayers have a right to expect the tax assessment process to operate with efficiency and meticulous evenhandedness – especially when government services are being scoured for every expendable cent.

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