Each summer the Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Mike Lonergan mails cards to all property owners, informing them of the updated value of their property used to determine taxes due in the coming year.
What happens if the new assessment seems out of line with what an owner expects? Lonergan said the goal of his office is to ensure that each property is assigned an accurate value.
“The bottom line is this: Ask if you could sell your property for the assessed value. If the answer is yes, you don’t have a case,” Longeran said. “If the answer is no, then you should appeal.”
The appeal process, though, may not be for the fainthearted.
Last year Key Peninsula resident Jan Foss received an assessment stating that his property had increased in value by more than 27 percent. He was puzzled by the increase—his property does have some view but is high bank without beach access and he was not aware of any recent sales that would support such an increase. He contacted the assessor’s office and decided to appeal.
He was scheduled to present his case to the Pierce County Board of Equalization, an independent board of five members appointed by the county executive to hear property owner appeals. The appeal process required Foss to identify three comparable properties. He used Zillow, an online resource, to identify comparable properties. He was also given parcel numbers of the three properties used by the county to make its determination.
Foss evaluated the county-identified comparable sales. All were waterfront, but they had more waterfront footage, easy beach access and bulkheads. Some had additional amenities such as power, water and dock on the beach. He appeared before the Board of Equalization in November. The board agreed with Foss that the county properties were not comparable, and asked what he thought would be acceptable as an adjusted assessed value. He suggested a 15 percent increase. Two weeks later he received a letter confirming that he had “provided clear, cogent and convincing evidence that the assessor’s 2017 value is incorrect.” The new value, about 15 percent higher than his 2016 assessment, was approved.
Two weeks later, Foss received a notice from the assessor’s office stating that the office was appealing the decision of the Board of Equalization and that he would need to appear before the Washington State Board of Tax Appeals. Foss began to prepare for the appeal and looked further into the descriptions of the properties used by the county. He stood by the basic differences, making his case that all waterfront is not equal. But in addition, he found that one property was actually two lots and that another parcel was 6 acres rather than the 1½ acres initially described. He sent his documents to the state in February as requested.
In March he received a call from the county appraiser to inform him that they were withdrawing the appeal, and he was notified by mail shortly thereafter. The appeal is specific for 2017. Foss recently received his 2018 assessment and it is back to the 27 percent increase he experienced last year. “I don’t know if I have the energy to do this again,” he said. “It’s a ton of work for me, and the county has all the information at its fingertips.”
Lonergan did not have access to the records at the time this article went to press, and the county appraiser responsible for the appeal has retired, but Lonergan did offer some observations. According to him, property values on the Key Peninsula have begun to increase at rates seen earlier in Tacoma and Gig Harbor—by 12½ percent this year.
Of the more than 300,000 properties assessed each year, about 1,000 are appealed. One appraiser on staff is responsible for appeals. About one-third of appeals are adjusted because of manifest errors—such things as errors in the legal description, the placement of improvements or erroneous measurements. These can often be determined by checking the parcel on the department website and owners can call the assessor’s office at 253-798-6111 with any questions.
The county uses mass appraisal to make market adjustments each year. To do this, the county is broken up into 18 areas and each area is then divided into neighborhoods (the Key Peninsula is one area with 21 neighborhoods). Appraisal is then based on sales in the same neighborhood. Lonergan thought that perhaps the large increase in the Foss property was due to the sale of expensive homes in the vicinity that upon further scrutiny were not comparable. The specific comparable properties would have been identified after Foss filed his appeal.
Lonergan also said that his office generally does not appeal the decision of the Board of Equalization if their decision is within 10 to 15 percent of the assessor’s original estimate. The state appeal process can take up to two years, and he feels that the confusion about accounting for tax payments, when the assessed value is unclear for several years, is simply not worth it.
Property taxes will increase in 2018 for everyone, due to a new state tax to pay for school funding in response to the state Supreme Court McCleary Decision and, depending on the district, approval of levies to pay for requests from fire, park, library and school districts.