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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Tax Appeals Threaten Local Budgets High Number Of Disputed Property Values May Leave Schools And Fire Districts With Less To Spend

An unusually high number of disputed property values in Spokane County could leave cities, schools and fire districts with much less money to spend than they expected.

The disputes also mean many property tax bills will go out with the wrong amount due, requiring large amounts of time to fix.

Angry property owners filed nearly 1,600 appeals with the state board that referees squabbles over assessed values - that’s twice the number disputed last year.

“I’ve never seen anything like that, not at the beginning of the year like this,” said County Treasurer Linda Wolverton.

About 1,000 of those appeals involve commercial properties, many of which hadn’t been reassessed since the late 1980s.

Linda Kovick, clerk of Spokane County’s state Board of Equalization, said leaping values are panicking commercial property owners. “It has been a lot more traumatic around here than usual.”

Schools and cities set their levy rates based on the value of property within their borders. If the hundreds of appeals result in lowered valuations, they don’t get as much money.

Walt Rulffes, Spokane School District’s associate superintendent, said he’s frightened by the prospect of major changes to his tax take.

“This is the first time we’ve been faced with this volume of changes,” he said.

Last year, the district lost $100,000 because of appeals and corrections, he said. He’s heard that’s nothing compared to this year.

“We’re concerned,” Rulffes said.

Because of their size and location, commercial properties on average are worth much more than residential properties.

While Wolverton isn’t certain of the amount of lost revenue, she’s heard it’s in the neighborhood of $1 million.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that,” Wolverton said.

About half of that money would have gone to schools and a third to the city of Spokane. The rest would have been spread through the county.

Assessor Sadie Charlene Cooney said she has no idea of the value of the changes, but if it were $1 million, it wouldn’t be that unusual.

“(Taxing districts) have to plan for that money not coming in,” Cooney said. “We could all decide not to pay our taxes this year.”

She admits her office has been overwhelmed this year. Massive changes in the assessment process, including switching from a four-year reassessment cycle to an annual cycle, have left her employees scrambling to keep up.

A lack of staff, fumbled data entry and complicated new computer systems are as much to blame for the appeals as anything, she said.

A number of appeals already have been resolved by her appraisers, said Cooney.

Ken Stone, the city’s budget director, said the city already adjusted for changes when assessed values came in way too high in December. More changes could leave the city hard pressed to meet its 1995 budget.

“If that’s correct, I would be very disappointed,” Stone said.

Wolverton said she plans to begin sending out tax bills this month, but expects she’ll be making major corrections in the months to come.

“It doesn’t hurt us, but it affects the taxpayers, it affects the districts that set their budgets,” she said.

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