Property-tax deadline looms; need some help?

With the first installment of property taxes due May 2, Barbara Alsheikh has her work cut out for her.

“For many people, it is the first time they have really looked at the property-tax bill,” says Alsheikh, supervisor for the King County Tax Advisor Office.

“And before writing the check, they have questions about the value of their property, the levy rate and the amount due.”

The Tax Advisor Office is independent from the assessor and provides residents with advice and assistance, including appeals.

“We are, in effect, a one-stop shop for property questions,” she says.

The primary complaint this year, says Alsheikh, is that a drop in house values did not result in lower tax bills.

“It is a very tough year for many taxpayers,” she adds.

The property-tax bill is not based on real-estate markets at all. Like Ohio, Washington state operates under a “budget-based” property-tax system in which taxing districts, such as fire departments and library and school districts, submit their annual budgets to the assessor, who then determines the taxing rate necessary to meet the adopted budgets.

King County Assessor Lloyd Hara says several factors are at play.

“The most common is that voters approve a property-tax measure, typically a school levy, and that increases the overall property-tax levy that is reflected on the 2011 bill.”

Taxpayers in King County, on average, will pay about 3.33 percent more in property taxes this year, according to Treasury Operations Manager Scott Matheson.

Only 17 percent (or $624 million dollars) of property taxes support King County purposes, says Phillip Sit, Department of Assessments communication and outreach coordinator. The other 83 percent is divvied up among state and local government.

While taxpayers cannot appeal their property taxes, they have the right to appeal the valuation (assessment) of their property — the basis upon which their taxes are calculated — to the King County Board of Equalization, an independent board made up of citizens appointed by the King County executive. Generally, this must be done within 60 days from the time official property-value notices are received.

Alsheikh said her office typically handles about 800 calls in the first two weeks after billings are mailed in February.

Assessed value should not to be confused with market value, which is defined as the amount a buyer, willing but not obligated to buy, would pay to a seller, willing but not obligated to sell.

Assessed value is determined by actual sales and the real-estate market, rather than the current market, notes Alsheikh; assessed values use historical data, which lags behind real time by one or two years.

“Like any business, the budget for a public service tends to increase over time as employees’ wages and benefits, energy costs, transportation and facilities’ costs increase. In addition, voter-approved ballot issues tend to increase the taxes each year,” says Alsheikh.

Meanwhile, taxpayers who are unable to pay their property tax in full are encouraged to contact the Assessor’s Office. Additionally, seniors or disabled persons, may be able to qualify for a property-tax exemption or deferral program.

Alsheikh, for her part, won’t be slowing down anytime soon. She says her busiest season will begin in a month or two, when new official (property) value notices will be mailed out.

“We strive to put each taxpayer on “equal” footing with the assessor’s staff,” she says. “But we don’t take sides; we aren’t out to ‘beat’ the assessor. The goal for all three agencies [including the Office of the Assessor, the Treasury, and the Tax Advisor] is the same: fair and equitable distribution of property taxes.”

Of the 6,000 to 7,000 phone calls the office gets, Alsheikh said, perhaps 10 percent are asking for research and appeal advice.

At the end of last year, nearly 12,300 accounts, including households and undeveloped property for a business, hadn’t paid any taxes for 2010; and just below 12,750 accounts paid only the first half of their taxes owed for the same year according to Scott Matheson, Treasury Operations Manager for King County.

Together, those figures represent 3.7 percent of the 681,757 accounts that were billed last year. “Our historical collection rate,” notes Matheson, “has held steady at around 98 percent for the last several years, and we don’t expect to see a change this year.”

Source: By Elizabeth M. Economou, Seattle Times (4/22/2011)

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