There is no reason to believe property owners were harmed because the Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer’s Office skipped tens of thousands of property inspections in recent years, a new report concludes.
The report, submitted to the County Council, also finds that Pierce County appraisers have a high workload compared to their peers elsewhere in the state. But it also concludes there is no need to increase the number of appraisers at this time.
New Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam called the report “a whole lot of conjecture” at Tuesday’s council meeting.
Washam said he’s asked the state attorney general and the state auditor to investigate the lack of inspections. And he objected to strings the council attached to his budget Tuesday.
“I want to express my disgust and disdain for how this was handled,” Washam told the council.
The report by the council’s performance audit staff comes three weeks after Washam announced that the office had failed to inspect at least 181,000 residential properties and tens of thousands of commercial properties as required by state law.
Assessor’s documents and interviews with assessor’s office employees indicate the missed inspections occurred over six or more years under Washam’s predecessor, Ken Madsen.
The law lets local assessors use statistical methods to assess properties annually for tax purposes. But it requires them to physically inspect every property at least once every six years.
Those inspections can catch significant improvements or deterioration that can affect property values. And they allow appraisers to update property descriptions used in the statistical methods that determine values most years.
Washam told the council recently that there is no way of knowing how taxpayers were affected by the missed inspections. The performance audit report reaches a different conclusion.
“There is no reason to believe that individual property taxpayers were harmed by missed physical inspections of their homes in the past,” the report states.
If there was any impact, the report concludes it was likely that Pierce County collected less property tax from some than it might have had physical inspections been done.
“Parcels with unpermitted construction likely received lower property assessments than would have occurred if every property scheduled for physical inspection had actually been inspected,” the report finds. “The loser in such instances was Pierce County, not the individual taxpayer.”
The report acknowledges that the owners of properties that deteriorated may have been affected by skipped inspections. “Such taxpayers, however, had the opportunity to appeal if they considered their assessment was unfair,” the report concludes.
Among the report’s other findings:
• Pierce County property appraisers have the highest workload among six counties studied. There are 8,932 parcels for each Pierce County appraiser, nearly 1,000 parcels higher than Snohomish County and far higher than the 5,442 parcels per appraiser in King County.
• While the county may need to increase the number of appraisers in the long run, the assessor’s office has enough staff to meet state requirements. The state Department of Revenue will not require the assessor’s office to immediately inspect properties that were skipped last year, as required by law. Instead, the department wants Pierce County to submit a new six-year inspection plan that would start in 2010.
• The Assessor-Treasurer’s Office could absorb a budget reduction of $150,000 without resorting to layoffs. The savings would come from not filling a vacant deputy assessor’s job, from lower-than-budgeted software maintenance costs and other savings.
The council used that last finding as the basis for cutting Washam’s budget by $150,000 Tuesday, part of a larger effort to balance the county budget.
Originally, County Executive Pat McCarthy proposed cutting Washam’s budget by $324,000, or 3 percent. But Washam previously told the council that such a cut would force him to lay off appraisers and hinder his ability to address the inspection backlog.
The council approved budget language prohibiting Washam from laying off appraisers. And it requested he work with the Department of Revenue to develop a new inspection plan.
“We’ve given him a very modest cut,” said Councilman Shawn Bunney, R-Lake Tapps.
Washam wasn’t happy. He objected to the budget provisions and expressed his displeasure at the report.
It was unclear late Tuesday whether the attorney general or state auditor had responded to Washam’s request for an investigation.
David Wickert: 253-274-7341