ASOTIN, Wash. – The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife has gobbled up more than 10 percent of the 410,240 acres in Asotin County and that’s ruffled some feathers.
A group of Asotin County residents say purchases by the state agency are having an adverse effect on every other property owner in the county, whether they live in the country or city.
When that land goes off the tax rolls, everyone else winds up absorbing the added tax burden, said Brad Forgey, of Asotin. He and other members of the agricultural community are hoping changes are made at the state level to address the problem.
“We’re trying to even up the playing field,” said Matt Seibly, of Anatone. “The state needs to make the county whole, because the burden is on the remaining taxpayers.”
State-owned lands are exempt from property tax, but counties can receive payments in lieu of taxes from Fish and Wildlife to compensate for the loss. Those payments have been frozen at 2009 levels, which translates into a tax revenue hit for the county on all of the new acquisitions, said Bruce Petty, of Cloverland.
“The state isn’t paying its fair share and it affects everyone,” said Dan Sangster, of Anatone.
According to Dan Budd, a real estate section manager for Fish and Wildlife, the department owns 42,151 acres in Asotin County, and the annual payment in lieu of taxes is frozen at $36,123.
Several more purchases are in the works, including additional 4-0 Ranch property near the Grande Ronde River, Budd said. When complete, the state will have acquired 12,000 acres, just north of the Oregon-Washington border, from Mike Odom, the ranch owner.
The department can purchase land for public use if the sellers are willing, and the Asotin County group said they don’t have a problem with that. But they are worried about what it will do to the overall tax base.
Two bills have been introduced that deal with Fish and Wildlife land purchases. One is backed by Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, who said he’s been concerned about this issue for the past 20 years.
Currently, Fish and Wildlife doesn’t pay anything on small parcels, but his bill would require payments in lieu of taxes on parcels of all size, except boat launches and nearby parking lots. The bill has moved through the Senate and is now in the House.
“I’ve been concerned and working to limit these purchases for many years,” Schoesler said. “I think the state needs to redirect its funding toward such things as school construction and higher education, rather than acquiring more land that we can’t afford to take care of.”