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Whatcom property owners better start setting aside money for upcoming tax increase

City of Bellingham looking east. The green field in the middle is Battersby Field in front of Whatcom Middle School. Whatcom County property owners recently received their reassessed property values.
City of Bellingham looking east. The green field in the middle is Battersby Field in front of Whatcom Middle School. Whatcom County property owners recently received their reassessed property values. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Whatcom County property owners may be in for a bit of sticker shock when they receive their tax bills.

In recent weeks owners received their reassessed property values by mail. For many it rose because of the strong local real estate market. The tax bill that comes in February will also be higher for many because of several factors, with one of the biggest being the McCleary decision. That decision orders Washington state to fully fund public schools.

The state recently recently determined how much that will increase property taxes, which comes to about $1.12 per $1,000 of assessed value, said Whatcom County Assessor Keith Willnauer. That means for a property with an assessed value of $250,000, it’s a $280 increase for the coming year.

The overall property tax bill for a Whatcom County property owner will depend on a variety of factors, depending on what districts they are in. Examples include changes to that area’s school district levy, the county’s flood control zone levy, and regular districts, like the port, city and fire.

One other factor is the impact of the Hirst court decision, which restricts new rural developments that rely on domestic wells. Willnauer estimates that this has impacted about 1,100 properties, decreasing the value from between 35 and 50 percent. That decrease means a shift of the cost burden to other properties, but it is not as drastic a shift compared to other changes, Willnauer said. He estimated that the shift might add around $2 to the annual bill for residents in the city and between $5 and $10 to residents in the county.

MAKING SURE THE ASSESSMENT VALUE IS CORRECT

With so many potential increases to this year’s tax bill, it is important to make sure the assessed value of a property is correct, said Alan Elzea of Property Tax Advocates. Elzea works locally with property owners who believe the assessed value is incorrect, assisting them in appealing it to the Whatcom County Board of Equalization. The deadline for filing an appeal for the most recent reassessment is Jan. 2.

A rule of thumb that Elzea goes by when considering whether an assessed value should be appealed is whether a property owner can sell the property for that amount. Considering the number of properties the county has to assess each year, Elzea said the county does a good job coming up with a fair assessment value. Things can get tricky, however, when it comes to undeveloped property. If government planning agencies are making it difficult for someone to develop a piece of property, it should be reflected in the assessed value, Elzea said.

Willnauer encourages property owners to call or drop by the assessor’s office to talk about the assessment value if they have some concerns or questions. In many situations if it is clear that something was incorrect, the office will make the changes without going through the appeal process. While Jan. 2 is the deadline for appealing a situation where the owner and the assessor’s office disagree on a value, other situations can be corrected at any time. An example of this is if the assessor’s office believes a property owner has a garage, but they do not or it is owned by someone else.

For those who have homes or condominiums, the jump in assessment values are probably on target because of what’s been happening in real estate. A recent federal report estimates that Whatcom County home values rose 12.7 percent in the third quarter compared to a year earlier. Values for condominiums have increased substantially, and those owners are seeing it reflected in the reassessments.

“This is a real estate market I haven’t seen in a while,” Willnauer said.

It is important to note that currently an increase in the assessed value does not mean that next next year’s property taxes will increase at a proportionate rate. The amount needed to collect by districts is divided by the tax base, creating the rate.

One other option to lower the assessed value of a property is applying for the Senior Citizens & Disabled Persons Property Tax Exemption program. Details about who is eligible and who can apply can be found on the county’s website or calling/visiting the assessor’s office.

For details about assessed value and property taxes, call the assessor’s office at 360-778-5050 or email assessor@co.whatcom.wa.us. To contact Elzea, call 360-920-3777 or email alan@taxlowered.com. Elzea only collects a fee if he successfully lowers the property tax for a client.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz

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