About 30 property owners protested at the Lewis County courthouse on Monday over their new tax assessments, saying the assessed values have skyrocketed.

For people on a fixed income, “they are literally taxing people out of their homes,” said Loren Ackerman, a Centralia business owner whose post on Facebook about the increased valuations led to the protest. 

Lewis County Assessor Dianne Dorey met the protesters on the courthouse steps and invited them into the building to sit down and talk about how the assessment process works and why values are, in many cases, going up. 

The answer is simple, she said: properties are selling for more money as people move into the area from higher priced regions to the north and south, so assessments have to increase along with the market. 

“Article 7 of the Washington state Constitution says we must be at 100 percent of market value,” Dorey said. 

She invites people to come into her office or call (360-740-1392) if they have concerns about their property valuation. Her staff, she said, will collect new information and can adjust property values if they made a mistake or there is more accurate information to consider. 

Property owners can also file an appeal, but taxpayers face a fairly steep burden of proof in a formal appeal — pulling detailed comparative sales that are more compelling than what the assessor’s office has used. 

Ackerman said he learned that last year when he went to file an appeal.

“They make the appeals process as difficult as can be,” Ackerman said. “As busy as I am, I said this isn’t worth my time. I gave in to the king and the ransom is what it boils down to.”

There is a silver lining, so to speak, for people facing gold-plated valuations. 

A major increase in property assessment probably will not necessarily translate into taxes going up at the same rate.

Every property sits in several so-called taxing districts: schools, the county, fire districts, port districts, public library, even cemetery districts. Each of those taxing districts can increase the total amount of tax money it collects by just 1% per year (plus new construction). 

That total amount to collect is divided by all the assessed value in that district to set the tax rate, and then that rate is applied to everyone’s property. 

The math is complicated, but what it means is that the tax rate imposed on your property very well might go down if the total assessed value in that district is going up. The amount of money you pay on that (possibly lower) rate is based on your (possibly higher) property value, and the end result is that your tax amount due will probably go up, on average, about 8-10% a year. 

That’s still a significant increase, but nothing like the 30-70% increases in property assessed values that many people are seeing. 

The county assessor’s office looks at the real estate market and makes statistical adjustments to property values each year, Dorey said, but sometimes there can be a bigger jump every six years. That’s the rotation schedule for her office to physically inspect a property. Staff look for changes since the last inspection, measure the home, knock on the door, and measure the exterior. While they might catch a glimpse of what’s inside the home if they aren’t able to get a real look inside, they often have to make some assumptions about the interior quality of the home based on the exterior, Dorey said. 

Sometimes that sixth year is a catch-up year to bring the home in line with the market value — and there’s a lot of catching up to do.

“What we’re seeing in 2019 is unprecedented,” said Dorey, who has been county assessor for 21 years, and has worked in the office for 44 years. “I’ve never seen as many $600,000 and $700,000 sales in Lewis County ever.”

Looks like our property tax assessments are going to keep going up, protest or not. 

•••

It was great to see Chuck Wrzesinski and four generations of his family at the Chehalis pool during one of this week’s gloriously sunny evenings. Chuck and his wife, Gail, have been married for 63 years. I always ask longtime couples their secret.

“Just stick it out,” Gail said.

It’s that easy? 

As I watched them delighting in their great-grandchildren, proudly listing off the names of their many progeny, talking about the growth of their church and the latest news from their long life in Onalaska, I thought, “Yes — maybe it is.” 

•••

Brian Mittge’s column appears Saturdays in The Chronicle. Contact him at brianmittge@hotmail.com. 

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