Pierce County sends its annual gift of love: your new, higher property tax bill

Home construction continues apace at Harbor Hill in north Gig Harbor, January 4, 2018. Property taxes are going up there and elsewhere in Pierce County this year.
Home construction continues apace at Harbor Hill in north Gig Harbor, January 4, 2018. Property taxes are going up there and elsewhere in Pierce County this year. phaley@thenewstribune.com

Happy Valentine’s Day, Pierce County property taxpayers. Your bill is in the mail, and it’s going up — a lot.

Don’t blame Mike Lonergan, county assessor-treasurer. He’s just the messenger. His office will be sending annual bills this week, and he knows some people won’t be happy to get the little yellow notices.

“This year is a perfect-storm situation,” Lonergan said.

The storm refers to the convergence of a new state school-funding plan, lingering local school levies, a series of voter-approved local levies and a superheated housing market. All told, the property tax bill for an average single-family home will climb by $170 to $851 annually, depending on where you live.

The tiny town of Carbonado, population 665, will see the biggest increase. Property taxes in the community near Mount Rainier will rise by 24.5 percent.

Among larger cities, Sumner will take the hardest hit. Property owners there face an average hike of 21.8 percent, according to figures provided by the assessor’s office.

The cities of Milton and Fife also rank high on the list, with average increases of 19 percent and 17.8 percent. Gig Harbor, another leader, will see an average increase of 17.2 percent, while property owners in that city’s surrounding unincorporated areas will see increases of 16.7 percent.

Larger cities will see smaller increases: 11.9 percent in Tacoma, 6.5 percent in Lakewood, 7.6 percent in Puyallup.

Pull the property-tax money together, and the tally will reach $1.42 billion: the amount Lonergan’s office will collect this year.

The single biggest piece — about one-fifth of total property-tax revenue — reflects the state Legislature’s rejiggered school-funding plan, intended to comply with the state Supreme Court’s ruling in a case called McCleary.

After five years of wrangling and a marathon 2017 legislative session, lawmakers agreed to raise statewide property taxes to comply with the order. The impact equates to an added $1.03 per $1,000 of assessed value on individual properties.

The state’s plan included a corresponding decrease in local school levies, but that part of the proposal won’t take effect until next year, creating a one-year bubble where the new state rates apply and the local rates remain. It’s possible that tax rates will drop next year as a result, Lonergan said, but it’s not guaranteed.

“I’m not quite sure what the Legislature’s thinking was,” Lonergan said. “They definitely knew they were imposing it a year ahead of the expiration and refinancing of these local levies. We’ve got the carryover of these high school levies locally. For this, year, new state levies are at the new level, and existing local levies are still at the existing rates.”

Another factor plays a key role: the hot housing market. For example, assessed values in University Place rose by 11.2 percent between 2016 and 2017. The average single-family home value jumped from $325,080 to $361,705.

Normally, higher values tend to mean a slightly lower property tax bill, due to longstanding voter-approved initiatives that limit on the rate of annual increases — but 2018 is different.

The new higher state school levy and the continued local levies make up about 58 percent of the total tax bill. Other chunks of revenue come from voter-approved local levies for park and fire districts.

In other words, if voters want someone to blame for the big new bill, they should look in the mirror.

“We get the calls, ‘Why did you raise my taxes?’ Lonergan said. “Well, even this year, with the newly imposed state tax being put into play, 45 percent of all the property taxes that I will collect are the result of a vote by the people in a taxing district. If everybody voted no, your taxes would be half of what they are now.

“Then people say, ‘I didn’t vote for it.’ Well, your next-door neighbor must have voted for it, because it passed. It was choices that were made. People wanted to pay a little more tax.”