Civic Agenda: Property taxes support community-based services in Whatcom County

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 18, 2014 

April showers tend to signal the start of gardening and lawn mowing season for many in Whatcom County. April also delivers to us another season - tax season. It is often accompanied by a dancing Uncle Sam or Statue of Liberty on a busy street corner reminding us that it's time to file our federal income tax returns. April is also when your first-half property tax payment is due.

As your Whatcom County Treasurer, I am responsible for billing and collecting the property tax levies for approximately 60 public taxing authorities in our county including the state, school districts, the county, cities, fire districts, the Port of Bellingham, park districts and others. In February, my office sent out 117,250 property tax bills totaling $273,399,693.16, which represents a 3.8 percent or approximately $10 million increase over 2013 levels. I don't get to decide how much each of these taxing authorities collects. I'm just the efficient messenger that sends out a single bill on everyone's behalf. In most cases, it's the voters that decide, indirectly through electing local officials and directly by voting on special tax levies placed on the ballot. The voters elect local officials to these councils, commissions and boards that adopt plans and budgets that drive their need to collect property taxes. These decisions are made at open public meetings. The best time to ask questions is when these entities are adopting their budgets (typically in the fall), not when you get your property tax bill in the mail.

Whatcom County voters have a long history of approving special levies for schools, parks and greenways, emergency medical services, affordable housing and other issues. In 2014 on a countywide basis, 39 percent of the total taxes billed were voter approved at the ballot box.

So where does your money go? If you have your tax statement, on the upper right hand portion is a listing of the taxing authorities your money is going to right down to the penny. It also shows you how much of your tax bill was approved by voters at the ballot box. On a countywide basis, this is where your tax dollars are going:

District   Total tax   Percent of total
School districts   $97,940,627.28   35.82 percent
State school   $61,841,538.00   22.62 percent
Cities   $28,922,651.60   10.58 percent
County   $27,579,208.29   10.09 percent
County road district   $18,263,116.51   6.68 percent
Fire districts   $15,457,897.16   5.65 percent
Rural library district   $7,562,704.74   2.77 percent
Port of Bellingham   $6,836,604.27   2.50 percent
Flood control zone district   $3,287,504.52   1.20 percent
Bellingham Housing Levy   $2,000,000.00   0.73 percent
County Conservation Futures   $1,021,221.56   0.37 percent
Park and recreation districts   $910,200.56   0.33 percent
Cemetery districts   $567,122.87   0.21 percent
EMS districts   $533,043.01   0.19 percent
State forest fire patrol   $422,675.24   0.15 percent
Hospital districts   $253,577.55   0.09 percent
Total   $273,399,693.16   100 percent

The county assessor and treasurer cooperatively maintain an online searchable property website that contains a wealth of information. You can see basic property information, maps, photos, value history, sales history, payment information and much more. If you have a question about your property value or taxes, you may be able to answer your own question from the information that is available to you on the property website. You can access the searchable property website anytime at http://property.whatcomcounty.us/.

When I started in the treasurer's office over 15 years ago, we were collecting less than half of the amount of property taxes we are today and sending out tens of thousands fewer bills. We also currently have 30 percent fewer employees than we did 15 years ago. With the support of the county executive and County Council, we have made wise investments in efficient technologies over the years. We also leverage services from our external business partners. For, example, when you mail your property tax payment to that funny Seattle address on the envelope, it's going to a KeyBank processing center that can process those payments faster and at a lower cost than we can do it in-house.

My office continually looks for new ways to be more efficient. Our local title companies, lenders, real estate agents and attorneys are key business partners to efficiently process real estate transactions. To complete a real estate transaction today, they are often shuffled between the treasurer's, assessor's and auditor's offices. We intend to complete a system this year that will allow those real estate transactions to be submitted electronically and flow seamlessly between all three offices from start to finish. Our system will be the first in Washington to do this and I would like to thank Assessor Keith Willnauer and Auditor Debbie Adelstein for working with me to think a little outside of the box to get to the solution everyone wants.

Over the years, property taxes have become a growing financial obligation for everyone. Whether you own a home, rent or own a business, property taxes impact your cost to live and work in Whatcom County. Historically, over 97 percent of taxpayers pay their taxes on time, and, although the obligations are significant, I have provided as many options for people to pay their taxes in a timely manner as possible. You can use the mail, come into our office and pay with cash or check or credit/debit card, use the drop boxes outside the County Courthouse, pay online by credit/debit card or e-check, or sign up for autopay to have your taxes deducted from your bank account on the due dates. I'm often asked why we charge a fee to pay your taxes with a credit or debit card. The short answer is that state law requires me to pass the processing costs onto the user.

I also recognize the difficulty of paying your property taxes when you just don't have the money. Washington has several programs to reduce or defer property taxes for low-income seniors and disabled persons. The State Legislature recently made some changes to state law that allows the county treasurer new flexibility in allowing partial payments and payment plans to help people get caught up when they fall behind on their taxes. We are looking at cost-effective options to help the 3 percent that can't pay on time without creating a lot of additional costs to the county or the taxpayer.

April showers bring May flowers. A little rain renews the natural beauty of Whatcom County we all enjoy. Your property taxes support important, community-based services throughout our county that we benefit from in our daily lives and make Whatcom County the special place we call home.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steve Oliver is the elected Whatcom County Treasurer. Contact him at 360-676-6774. This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws to provide to share updates about Whatcom County issues and projects. He invites citizens to contact him at 360-676-6717 or jlouws@co.whatcom.wa.us.

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