Property tax strikes again

More than 100 island property owners attended an event Saturday featuring Kitsap County Assessor Jim Avery, who explained why the county’s latest land assessments took what many considered to be astronomical increases over the previous year. The emotions of those attending the meeting at the Commons generally ranged from angry to frustrated or to just plain confused.

A few islanders expressed fear that they may be forced to sell their land because of the higher taxes – based on the assessments made in 2007 and first-quarter of 2008 – that will be levied in 2009 on what they consider inflated estimates of what their property is actually worth.

Avery was sympathetic, at least, to a degree. If the landowner thinks his office made a mistake, he said, then please call Port Orchard to see if it can be corrected or appeal to the Board of Equalization – before the Sept. 12 deadline.

Generally, however, he emphasized that the assessments were based on his office’s best efforts to ascertain each piece of property’s fair-market value on the island. The county raised the island’s assessed values – land and buildings – a uniform 15 percent during the previous year. But this latest assessment was the physical, on-site-visit type that the assessor’s office does every six years to see if there have been major property revisions of one type or another.

That’s why the fluctuations were more extreme than usual for the assessments sent out on July 11. The county raised the assessed value of many of the waterfront and pricier properties, which sometimes causes the value of more modest properties in the neighborhood to also escalate.

“Basically, we are trying to determine what the land is worth if you sell it,” Avery told members of the aging audience. “It’s all about fair-market value, and we have to make adjustments as the market changes. It’s our mission to equalize the tax burden, and the value of the land has been increasing. It’s difficult with the island being so non-homogeneous, but we think ours is as good a system as there is. Still, we realize judgment issues are at stake.”

One of the mitigating circumstances is that island real estate sales have been in a serious funk for about a year. If sales were as vigorous as they’ve been in the recent past, then the high assessments would be less problematic because the market would still allow sellers to get top dollar for their property. But with activity dipping – and prices, correspondingly – the landowner who wants to sell is forced to either be patient or possibly settle for less than is desirable.

With the slump in mind, the county extended some of the sales through March (past the usual Dec. 31 deadline) in order to see if it could calculate a trend. The trend was downward, of course, but the county’s assessments were still at 92 percent of the actual sales prices that occurred on the island.

The lack of sales makes it more difficult to validate the market’s value than it might during the previous six-year cycle because it’s always easier when sales are booming, such as they were in the 1990s.

Today, however, the up is down. So how can the county justify increasing property taxes to reflect the fair-market value of island land at a time when people are struggling to get a fair-market price for their property? Oh yeah, it has something to do with equalizing the tax burden. Darn that property tax.

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