Barring a last-minute reprieve, Pierce County leaders will take Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam to court Monday in an effort to make him do his job.
County prosecutors intend to file a writ of mandamus – a legal command – that would order Washam to complete physical inspections and appraisals of new construction and improvements. The inspections are part of Washam’s job description. Under state law, county assessors are supposed to inspect all new construction by July 31, and report the associated values by Aug. 31.
“We will ask the court to order him to perform his statutory duties – more specifically, assess the new construction,” Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said Friday.
Washam did not respond to questions The News Tribune e-mailed to his office Friday afternoon.
The latest episode in the long-running feud between the assessor and county leaders stems from an order Washam gave to his staff in June. Through a subordinate, he ordered property appraisers to stop inspections of new construction a month early and return to continuing physical inspections of existing properties.
Inspecting existing properties is also one Washam’s duties under law – but he has made it his signature issue since taking office. He believes past property assessments were tainted by his predecessor’s use of computer models.
County leaders pay close attention to new construction because it adds new money to budgets – not just for the county, but also cities, school districts, fire districts and other local government agencies.
The total amount of new construction money the county could lose remains unclear. Sources close to the debate say as many as 1,400 new construction permits are still waiting for inspection. The amount of associated property value is a matter of guesswork.
Fairness also pays a role in the debate. Not inspecting new construction means that property owners who build new homes or additions could go for a year or more without paying the associated taxes, while existing property owners pay the full freight. Tax collectors from the state Department of Revenue underlined that point in a letter to Washam sent two weeks ago.
At that time, County Council members also proposed adding $20,000 to Washam’s budget to assist with the completion of new construction inspections. The council is expected to take a final vote on that proposal Tuesday.
Washam stated he would use the money to continue new-construction inspections for one more week, but he did not say he would continue until the deadline.
The uncertainty prompted Lindquist to send Washam a letter Tuesday, asking for clarification and setting a deadline.
“Please inform me in writing not later than 4:30 p.m., Friday, July 6, 2012, that you will instead direct your appraisal staff to complete all assessments of new construction before the statutory deadline of Aug. 31, 2012,” Lindquist wrote. “Absent such written assurance, this office will seek a writ to compel timely performance of this statutory duty.”
Washam responded Friday afternoon, but he offered no assurance. Instead, he asked for a legal opinion: “should new construction or physical inspections ever be given priority over the other?”
Sources say the county responded, noting that new construction takes priority due to the clear annual deadline. Physical inspections of existing properties operate under more general guidelines, on a cyclical six-year schedule. Also, the Department of Revenue typically grants extensions to assessor’s offices when they request more time to complete existing property inspections.
Washam did not respond to the county’s final note Friday, Lindquist said. That triggers the next step.
“The deadline has passed,” Lindquist said. “We didn’t receive the assurance I requested. Therefore we’re moving forward with legal action as I advised him we would.”
Lindquist said the county would file the writ in short order, citing the emergency presented by the state’s deadline. A writ of mandamus compels a public official to perform duties prescribed by law.
What if Washam refuses?
“We will then ask the court to find him in contempt,” Lindquist said. “If the court finds someone in contempt, the remedies can include fines and/or jail time.”