Opinion

Another year, another taxing frustration

Every year around this time, we have to reacquaint ourselves with the push-me-pull-you between assessed valuation of island homes, the local property tax rate and the resulting unpleasant bill.

There are enough variables for a good algebra problem, and you almost expect to see “Solve for X” at the bottom of your tax statement: If local home valuations shoot up by 19 percent but Washington voters have capped property tax hikes at 1 percent, why does the average island property tax bill go up 8 percent this year? Anyone without a degree in public finance is likely to scratch their head trying to make sense of it all, before breaking down and writing out a check to the county.

We sensed a little of that frustration a few weeks ago, when through the office transom came a note from a reader on Tolo Road asking us to explain how it all works. “Although I have a couple of MBAs, I don’t understand why the city, libraries, schools are all getting WAY more than 1 percent,” our correspondent wrote, apparently having looked up his taxes on the county website before the statements were sent out by the treasurer. “The fire district makes sense,” the gentleman wrote “Bainbridge approved a new levy for the water squirters. Hope you can write an article IN TERMS WE CAN UNDERSTAND...”

Well...

We’re not sure it’s true that the city and other districts under the property tax cap are getting more than 1 percent, at least based on the information we received from county assessor Jim Avery. But the agregate 7.7 percent whammy (your mileage may vary, depending on the specific change in your 2006 home valuation relative to neighboring properties) comes courtesy of the park and fire districts. First, the latter. As our Tolo Road reader correctly notes, Bainbridge voters last year approved a temporary “lid lift” for fire services, authorizing the department to rake in an extra $2.27 million over six years to purchase new fire trucks. That accounts for some of the increase homeowners will see when their tax bills arrive this week.

The greater part of the hike can be attributed to park commissioners, who with the change to metropolitan park district status took the one-time-only opportunity to set a new and higher tax rate themselves – about 35 percent over the previous year, Avery says – to bring the agency out of penury and pay for upkeep of the many new parks being added to the public fold. After this year, though, that district will be under the same 1 percent tax increase lid as the other jurisdictions.

All of this makes a lot more sense by looking at the local tax model put together by the Intergovernmental Work Group, (available on the city’s website at www.ci.bainbridge-isl.wa.us/documents/model%202005-05-27.pdf). It is without question the simplest, most informative explanation of local property taxes yet devised, and includes all manner of pie charts, bar graphs and other eye candy for the math impaired (among whose ranks we count ourselves). The most interesting fact of all may be found on page 19 of that document. Turns out that more than half the property taxes paid by Bainbridge Islanders were directly approved at the ballot box by a supermajority – 60 percent or greater – of the taxpayers themselves.

So to answer the gentleman from Tolo Road: Once in a while, your property taxes go up because the people you elect to office decide to raise them. More often than not, they go up because you voted yourself to raise them, or if not you, most of your neighbors did.

Hope that helps.

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