This time of year, I hear a lot of tax collector jokes and I even get some hate mail. That’s because my job is to reach into more than 300,000 pockets for $1.35 billion a year, doing my best to take the right amount from each pocket.
Property tax statements for 2019 have been mailed to the owners of residential and commercial land and buildings in Pierce County. (Where the tax is paid through an escrow account, the statement is sent to the bank or mortgage company, but it’s easy to look up online.)
County assessors and treasurers across Washington try hard to clear up myths and mysteries surrounding the property tax. The biggest misunderstanding is that an increased property value equals increased tax.
Actually, state law limits each taxing district to 1 percent more property tax revenue than the previous year, plus tax on new construction. So, if most values in a district are rising at a similar rate, as has been the case in recent years, the tax rate is driven down.
The tax is determined by multiplying property value (in thousands of dollars) by the combined rate of all taxing districts where a property is located. Because school funding (both local and state) accounts for over half of the property tax, changes in the school formula can make quite a difference.
Last year saw tax increases for nearly every property, due to the Legislature’s addition of a second state school levy, to meet the court-ordered state funding of K-12 education.
This year, the second half of that equation takes effect — reduction of local school operating levies (now called enrichment levies) to no more than $1.50 per $1,000 of property value.
In 2018, these voted local levies in Pierce County’s 17 school districts ranged from $1.98 per $1,000 in the Peninsula School District up to $5.45 in the Carbonado District, with most other districts in the $3 to $4 range.
So, even though the value of most properties increased significantly in the past year, many taxpayers are seeing a reduction in their property tax due for 2019.
Also, this year only, the second state school levy is reduced by 30 cents per $1,000 value, resulting in additional savings. That one-year cut by the Legislature isn’t likely to be extended.
Already there is pressure in Olympia to raise the $1.50 local levy limit, and to increase funding in districts where teachers received substantial raises during a wave of strikes last fall.
Legislators are also being asked to call an election on reducing the constitutional 60-percent “yes” vote required to pass school construction bonds.
Last year voters in several school districts passed capital project levies taking effect in 2019, reducing the net amount of savings. The Fife District is seeing an increase in the total school tax rate due to a new construction bond levy.
In the Peninsula District, where the levy rate was already low, there is virtually no change.
The impact of three recently passed construction bonds in Peninsula, Bethel and Yelm Districts will be felt beginning in 2020.
In addition to schools, property taxes pay for city and county government, fire districts, EMS, parks, libraries, the Port of Tacoma, Sound Transit and flood control. Fees for conservation, noxious weed control and surface water are also included on the tax statement.
Property owners may view their taxes online at the Assessor-Treasurer’s website, piercecountywa.gov/atr, by entering either their parcel number or street address. Payment is due in two halves, by April 30 and October 31, 2019.
I see first-hand the difficulty many property owners have making ends meet, including taxes, insurance, upkeep and repairs. I will continue to be an advocate for the taxpayer, reminding local and state governments that the dollars they spend come out of your pocket.
Mike Lonergan is Pierce County’s two-term elected assessor-treasurer. Email him at Mike.Lonergan@piercecountywa.gov