Spokane County weed control tax wrongly collected, prompting lawsuit

SATURDAY, MAY 17, 2014

Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake property owners were improperly taxed more than $1 million over the past decade for noxious weed enforcement and now a lawsuit has been filed against Spokane County seeking full refunds.

The civil suit, which could become a class-action on behalf of the more than 50,000 property owners in the two cities, was filed this week in Spokane County Superior Court by Liberty Lake Mayor Steve Peterson and three others.

“My goal is to protect our citizens and taxpayers,” Peterson said Friday. “The fact is we take care of our own weeds.”

Spokane County Risk Manager Steve Bartel said Friday that the lawsuit is being sent to an outside attorney for review before deciding how to proceed.

“It’s kind of surprising,” Bartel said of the tax mix-up. “We want to get outside counsel to take a look at it and give us his thoughts.”

The problem was discovered last year, and tempers in Liberty Lake and Spokane Valley have been simmering ever since.

The county’s Noxious Weed Control Board has long been funded through a per-acre tax on property in unincorporated Spokane County, and through negotiated agreements with some cities. The minimum parcel assessment is $3 per year.

But when Liberty Lake incorporated into its own city in 2001 and Spokane Valley in 2003, the noxious weed assessments continued even though the county lacked the legal authority to impose it on property within city limits. Spokane Valley property owners have been improperly assessed about $95,000 a year, while the amount assessed on Liberty Lake parcels has been about $9,000 a year, according to staff briefings provided to city council members.

In comparison, the city of Spokane – which is twice the size of Spokane Valley – pays the weed board just $6,000 per year, while Cheney, Deer Park and Airway Heights each pay about $600 annually. Property owners in those cities pay no per-parcel tax.

All that could change next year, though.

Noxious weed regulators are proposing a countywide minimum rate of $2 on every parcel, including those within all city limits. It would boost the total budget for noxious weed enforcement by about 16 percent to $485,000. Spokane County commissioners would need to approve the change.

Peterson, the Liberty Lake mayor, said that when the improper taxing was discovered last year, the county fixed the error by expanding the weed board’s legal authority to impose the assessment on property within Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake rather than removing the fees. The commission left individual property owners in all other cities and towns exempt.

“These are the only two cities in the county where property owners are being charged that,” he said.

Spokane Valley City Council members were visibly angry last month after learning that the city’s residents were shouldering such a lopsided share of the county’s weed control efforts.

“I think they do a good job,” Mayor Dean Grafos said of the weed board’s eradication efforts. “But I sure don’t like that we’re paying 15 times what Spokane is.”

Peterson filed the lawsuit as an individual property owner rather than a city representative. The other plaintiffs include his wife, Charmaine; Cheryl Hull; and Stanley Jochim. All own property in Liberty Lake and Spokane Valley. They are represented by Spokane lawyer Paul J. Burns.

Whether the lawsuit is granted class-action status is up to the judge who is assigned the case.

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