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Dont mess with Washingtons property tax system
by Don C. Brunell
President, Association of
Wish your property taxes were lower? Me too. Most of us in Washington, if weve lived in our homes more than a couple of years, have seen the value of our property increase. Housing values continue to rise faster than most things in our lives, faster than inflation, wages, groceries, even gas prices.
Some would say that means housing has been a great investment. And, of course, theyre right if and when we want to sell our homes. But for most of us, our house isnt an investment. Its our home where we live, raise our family, and, if were lucky, where we will spend a long and comfortable retirement.
When home values go up, property taxes often go up as well. And, especially when our incomes havent risen to match, those higher property taxes can put a real bite on tight budgets.
But property taxes dont go up because assessments rise. Your taxes dont automatically double just because your property value does. Taxes go up to keep pace with government spending. So the best way to control taxes is to control spending.
Bear with me for a minute. Unlike the sales tax, which has a fixed rate, the property tax rate fluctuates from year to year. Its determined when governments set their budgets. The assessor determines the total tax base for the school district, county, city, fire district, and so on. Then, complying with various rates and spending limits, local officials figure out how much they can spend. And that process determines the tax rate. The tax bill, then, is the sum of all the property tax decisions made by a handful of local governments and the state.
If that sounds complicated, you might be surprised to learn that Washington has one of the best and simplest systems in the country. Thats because our state constitution requires that all property be assessed at fair market value and taxed uniformly. It also provides that the levy or taxes on your annual billing cannot exceed one percent of assessed value without a vote of the people. Even with those sensible provisions in place, rising property values did permit taxes to go up quite a bit, so additional limits have been imposed, capping how much governments could increase their total property tax collections in any given year.
In 2001, voters adopted Initiative 747, limiting the annual increase to one percent, a tight cap indeed. Only with voter approval can governments exceed the limit. (A court decision has threatened I-747, but there are several bills in the Legislature to make sure that the voters intent is upheld.) That doesnt mean your taxes will only go up one percent. There are a lot of voter-approved levies in most communities, for schools, emergency services, fire districts, transit systems and the like. And, because properties increase in value at different rates and local assessment schedules vary, in different years, some people will see much larger increases than others.
But overall, the system works pretty well. The property tax burden in our state is below the national average, amounting to about 2.9 percent of personal income here, compared to a U.S. average of 3.3 percent.
Our system works well because it is fair, transparent and accountable. Because all property is uniformly assessed at fair market value and taxed the same, every property owner in a community has a common stake in the spending decisions of local government. In some states, like Minnesota, lawmakers have created dozens of classes of property lakefront cabins get different treatment than primary residences, for example. That creates a situation where taxpayers can vote to shift their tax burden onto someone else, and accountability and good government suffer.
We dont want that here. The camels nose under the tent generally starts with some innocent sounding proposal to create a homeowners exemption, a small tax break for some people. Right now, our Constitution wisely prohibits that, because we know thats not where the breaks end. Once politicians break uniformity, the free-for-all begins, as various groups compete for special tax treatment. When governments move from taxing everyone the same to deciding how to shift the burden among different groups of constituents, no one is safe.
Over the years, the Legislature has addressed property taxes in many ways and come up with a series of tax deferrals for senior citizens and low-income homeowners. That way, they can cope with rising property values, which drive their higher property taxes and then pay the deferred portion when they sell their homes. That is when they realize the gain in the price of their home and have the money to pay the tax.
Across the country, states have been working to reduce the complexity and increase the fairness of property tax systems. We already have one of the best.