Pierce County prosecutors and state tax collectors sent county Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam a stern message Monday: Do your job.
Washam replied that he never stopped doing it, and accused local leaders of abusing legal process. But internal documents from his office and his own prior statements tell a different story.
The clash could come to a head Thursday in Superior Court, when a judge will hear the county argue for a writ of mandate, filed by prosecutors Monday, that would compel Washam's office to continue inspecting new construction in the county and report the associated values by Aug. 31.
That's a state deadline, written into law, applicable to all county assessors.
The county's writ would leave Washam two options: He could argue against it in court, or simply continue to inspect new construction according to his duties under law.
Prosecutor Mark Lindquist hopes for the second option.
"If in fact he does it, we'll call that a victory for Pierce County taxpayers," Lindquist said Monday. "He can end this any time by just agreeing to do his job."
If Washam tries to fight the writ, he'll face opposition from the state as well as county leaders. Monday, the state Department of Revenue underlined the county's concerns and ordered Washam to continue inspections of new construction.
Technically, Washam's staff member still were working on new construction Monday – but the threat of stopping that work has been in play since mid-June, alarming county leaders who are beginning to build next year's budget.
New construction, meaning new homes and improvements, adds new money to budgets, for the county as well as cities, schools, fire districts and other local government agencies.
Fairness is another factor. Not inspecting new construction means property owners who build homes or additions become "free riders," going for a year or more without paying taxes while existing property owners pay the full freight.
The standoff 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 July 1, and return to continuing physical inspections of existing properties.
Inspecting existing properties is Washam's signature issue. He believes past property assessments were tainted by his predecessor's use of computer models. He wants to correct them all, though state records show the values met or exceeded international standards of accuracy.
What's more, Washam has already met his quota of existing inspections for the year. He reported his success to the Revenue Department last month.
The trouble is Washam wants to keep going. He's placing a longer deadline in front of a shorter one. He wants to finish next year's physical inspections, which aren't due until May 31, 2013.
Monday's order from the Revenue Department tells Washam to deal with new construction first, and stick to a plan he agreed to follow in 2009. That plan includes a stipulation to complete all new construction inspections each year.
"It is our understanding that you intend to divert residential appraisal staff from assessing new construction to inspection of existing property," states the letter, written by Kathy Beith, assistant director of the agency's property tax division.
"If this occurs and you do not assess all taxable new construction, you will not be in compliance with your approved revaluation plan."
Washam did not respond to questions The News Tribune sent to his office Monday. He spoke briefly to a KOMO-TV reporter who asked about the new construction issue.
"We were on point to be done at all times," Washam said.
That's not what he said last month. In a June 13 e-mail to appraisers, Washam's chief deputy, Albert Ugas, told staff members to stop inspecting new construction July 1 a month before the state deadline.
On June 14, in a memo to the county's Budget and Finance Department, Washam said his office would be unable to complete new construction inspections.
On June 27, a County Council subcommittee voted to funnel $20,000 in emergency funding to Washam's budget to assist with new construction inspections. Washam then ordered his staff to work new construction for one more week.
The record appears in an e-mail from Gary Foreman, an appraisal supervisor.
"As a result of a meeting and decision this afternoon, Mr. Washam gave orders to continue the pickup of new construction another week, through July 6," Foreman wrote.
Washam also spoke to county staff members about halting new construction inspections. In late June, after the council's decision to spend $20,000, Washam spoke to Gary Robinson, who heads the county Budget and Finance Department.
According to Robinson, Washam said $20,000 wouldn't be enough to finish the new construction work. Robinson asked how much Washam needed.
"At the end of the conversation, he indicated $150,000," Robinson said. "He initially gave me a range of $140,000 to $160,000."
Whether Washam will appear in court Thursday is unclear. If he doesn't, one likely outcome is approval of the county's writ: an order with legal force he'll be obligated to follow.
"If he doesn't show up, that court order becomes binding, and we have an insurance policy," Lindquist said.