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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County treasurer defends action in clash with city

A squabble between city and county officials regarding property tax exemptions continued Tuesday with Spokane County Treasurer Rob Chase hitting back at the allegation that his office is engaged in “a fantasy.”

That statement was made by Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder late last month.

At issue is whether city officials had the power to exempt about 5,000 senior citizens and veterans from higher property taxes as a result of a street levy passed by voters.

Chase said Tuesday his office is preparing to comply with a court order requiring refunds for affected property owners, who had previously qualified for a tax exemption. But the county is also preparing to appeal, he said. It’s necessary to defend counties across the state against what Chase called an unprecedented taxing power grab by cities.

“I believe that if the roles were reversed, the city would be doing the same thing,” Chase said in a statement issued Tuesday.

The flap began Feb. 9 when the Spokane City Council passed an ordinance intended to protect the exemption for senior citizens and veterans. Several city officials campaigned for the levy on the promise that it would not increase taxes. But as the law was signed, the wheels were already in motion to deliver the first half of 2015 property tax assessments, Chase said, which did not reflect the exemption because the Washington Department of Revenue had doubts about the city’s authority to extend the exemption.

Chase bristled at the suggestion by Snyder that the county treasurer’s office was operating under “a fantasy” that the state Revenue Department was forcing the issue. He pointed to an April 24 ruling by Spokane County Judge Harold Clarke that the Revenue Department issued a directive in the form of a letter stating the city ordinance was “not authorized under a state law.”

“My principle is we follow the law,” Chase said Tuesday.

But Snyder accused Chase and the treasurer’s office of “hiding behind the Department of Revenue.” He also said the city’s action was not unprecedented.

“What’s unprecedented is a county ignoring a city law without a court order,” Snyder said.

Clarke ordered the county to issue refunds and corrected statements “without delay.” Spokane County Deputy Treasurer Mike Volz said the cost of postage would be somewhere between $14,000 and $20,000, not including the cost of labor to examine each of the roughly 5,000 parcels that qualify for the exemption. Making matters more difficult is the fact that some taxpayers paid their bills in full earlier this year, while others paid the first half of their taxes, Volz said.

County commissioners have sought to distance themselves from the levy issue, saying it’s a decision made by Chase and Spokane County Assessor Vicki Horton on advice from their legal counsel.

Chase said his office would be meeting later this week to determine if they will continue the legal fight.

The treasurer said the legal proceedings are a result of the city acting swiftly on the levy without consulting all county stakeholders before making the campaign promise.

“Their due diligence would have stopped this whole thing,” Chase said.