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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Woman wins public records lawsuit against Spokane County

Patricia Strand is doing battle with the county assessor that began with her questioning her property tax assessment. (Colin Mulvany)
Patricia Strand is doing battle with the county assessor that began with her questioning her property tax assessment. (Colin Mulvany)

A Spokane woman unhappy with an increase in her property taxes has won a $26,325 judgment against Spokane County, which failed to provide a public record she sought as part of a series of requests.

The record in question was an old website article on how to improve chances of winning a tax appeal. The county provided thousands of other documents in response to a series of public records requests and contends the failure was an oversight that was complicated by turnover in the assessor’s office.

Patricia Strand, 13206 W. Charles Road, lost three tax appeals, including one that went to the state Court of Appeals. She has since embarked on what amounts to an individual investigation of the Spokane County Assessor’s Office.

She sued the county in 2013 for failing to comply with the state Public Records Act after she had sought documents on policies and procedures.

County officials said the document at issue had been posted on the assessor’s website in 2007 but was removed after Assessor Vicki Horton was elected in 2010, according to the penalty order by Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno.

The document was not found for three years, even as the assessor’s office provided Strand with thousands of pages of other documents, Moreno said.

Horton did not return messages seeking comment. Horton’s attorney, Dan Catt of the county prosecuting attorney’s office, declined to comment because another public records case is being brought by Strand over additional documents she sought.

While the Strand challenges continue, state lawmakers last month held a hearing in Olympia to consider ways to prevent excessive and time-consuming public records requests. One idea is to create a non-court mechanism for resolving public records disputes.

The issue needs more study, according to a recent report to lawmakers on questions surrounding public records requests.

In her ruling on Sept. 30, Moreno said, “I cannot conclude that the assessor acted in bad faith, nor can this court condone the somewhat chaotic and disorganized structure of that agency.”

Moreno said the document on improving chances of winning a tax appeal was handed over to Strand on Dec. 5, 2012, well after the one-year time limit for record disclosures.

Strand said she was troubled when the assessor’s office doubled the land value of her five-acre lot in 2008, to $200,000 from $100,000.

That meant a tax increase of about $1,500 a year on the land alone. Strand said her tax increase grew to an additional $1,700 a year after her home value was raised in 2010.

The property valuation has dropped since then, from $449,000 in 2010 to $383,700 this year.

For 2014, her tax bill is $5,520.

Strand’s lot has 250 feet of frontage on Lake Spokane. The shoreline is located at the bottom of a steep hill below the home.

Initially, she wanted to know the basis for how appraisers decide on land values.

Later, she said, she discovered that neighboring parcels with what appear to be more valuable lots had been assessed for less than her lot.

She said her investigation suggests that the county’s appraisers do not apply consistent standards in coming up with the taxable value of raw land.

A retired accountant, Strand said appraisers have “complete and total autonomy to value as they see fit.”

Now, she is suing the county and assessor’s office for additional records she has been seeking for at least two years.

She said she sought inspection reports on 30 properties, appraisals, assessor statistics on appeals and the assessor’s roster of appeals.

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