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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Property valuations delayed because of staffing shortage in Spokane County Assessor’s Office

Local real estate agents say it important that first-time home sellers understand if they are in a seller’s, buyer’s or neutral market. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Property valuations will be more than four months late this year because of a staffing shortage in the Spokane County Assessor’s Office.

Assessor Vicki Horton said her office saw six appraisers retire last year, taking with them decades of experience and familiarity with Washington rules and regulations.

And refilling those positions has proved difficult because county appraiser salaries haven’t kept pace with those in the private sector, Horton said, calling the pay gap “significant.”

At full staff, the Assessor’s Office has 43 employees, including 14 residential, eight commercial and three personal property appraisers. The office recently filled seven of eight vacancies, but three of the new hires are trainees, and three came from out of state, Horton said.

“We have three out-of-staters who have to learn all kinds of new rules and regulations,” she said.

The setbacks caused the Assessor’s Office to miss a May 31 deadline for completing property assessments. The office is tasked with revaluing real estate every year and conducting site inspections every six years.

The deadline is part of a schedule set by the state Department of Revenue, but courts have ruled that the schedule isn’t binding as long as property owners have enough time to appeal valuations. Taxing jurisdictions also must have sufficient time to calculate levy rates.

Horton said this year’s valuations won’t be mailed to property owners until October. Owners will then have 30 days to file appeals.

The Department of Revenue doesn’t have the authority to fine counties that miss deadlines, said Beverly Crichfield, an agency spokeswoman.

“Financial penalties really only hurt county administrations and taxpayers,” she said.

Horton’s office notified the department of its staffing issue in February. It’s now working on residential valuations and new construction appraisals simultaneously.

“They knew where the problem was; they just didn’t have enough hands,” Crichfield said.

Horton, a Republican, joined the Assessor’s Office as an appraiser in 2000 and won her first election to lead the office in 2010. She said the office has completed its valuations on time for at least the past decade.

“We have been on time, and our office has been touted by the Department of Revenue for how well it’s been run,” Horton said.

Byron Hodgson, the chief deputy assessor, said the recent retirements posed an unusual challenge.

“Having that many appraisers leave in one year is not typical,” he said. “Refilling all of those positions when the real estate market is so hot has been difficult.”

Local governments across the country pay their real estate appraisers significantly less than private employers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, the average appraiser in the United States earned about $58,000, the bureau says. In Washington, mean wages topped $61,000.

Meanwhile, Spokane County’s 25 property appraisers had an average base salary of $46,245 last year, according to county salary data. The 19 appraisers who worked the full year earned, on average, nearly $4,100 in overtime pay.

County commissioners are responsible for approving or rejecting contracts for county employees, including wages and benefits.

Commissioner Al French said the issue of appraiser salaries was discussed earlier this year, but he does not see an urgent need for raises. He noted that most of the recent vacancies have been filled.

“We follow the market; we don’t lead the market in terms of pay,” he said. “I don’t argue with that. In fact, I’m very proud of the fact that we keep our labor costs under control.”

French said the commissioners offered Horton a piece of the county’s IT budget to pay for tablets that appraisers could use in the field, but Horton didn’t take advantage of the offer.

French said the tablets would eliminate the step of driving back to the Assessor’s Office to input appraisal information, increasing productivity.

“We’ve done what we can to try to help,” he said. “Some of this is market-driven. Some of this is management-driven.”

Horton disputed that, saying she hasn’t spoken about the tablets with any of the commissioners directly. She said she communicated with them through Gerry Gemmill, the county’s chief executive officer.

“They suggested that we try (the tablets) to help with the workload, but we told them that’s not a viable option,” Horton said.

Appraisers would need to be trained on a special software, and the tablets would require a stable internet connection in rural areas, she said. “Without a Wi-Fi connection it does no good in terms of time-saving or production.”

Horton said her office is waiting for one of the county’s contractors, a subsidiary of Thomson Reuters, to develop technology that would allow appraisers to work offline, then automatically upload data when an internet connection becomes available.