Monster Tax Savings for the Median County Homeowner!
Colin Tiernan reported on December 1 in the Spokesman that “Spokane County commissioners vote against raising property taxes”. [At the Spokesman (and probably most other newspapers) the editor decides on headlines, not the reporter who writes the story.]
As a county resident I might assume from that headline that I was just saved hundreds of dollars by the fiscally responsible action of the Spokane County Commissioners—who, at great effort—managed not to raise property taxes in these inflationary times. Careful reading of Mr. Tiernan’s article suggests a different, and more truthful, headline that you will never see: “Spokane County commissioners voted not to raise the median Spokane County property owner’s 2023 tax bill by—wait for it—seven dollars”. One might argue that foregoing a seven dollar rise in the 2023 property tax bill for the average Spokane County property owner isn’t even worthy of news coverage, much less a headline hinting that Spokane County Commissioners Al French, Josh Kerns, and Mary Kuney (all Republicans) had just saved county taxpayers a devastating rise in their property tax bill.
The calculations and legal constraints imposed on local Washington State governments as they puzzle out how to balance their budgets are bewilderingly complex—rife with opportunity for misrepresentation and misunderstanding. A visit to the local social media site Nextdoor offers a window into the confusion around coverage of the recent tiff between the City of Spokane City Council and Mayor Woodward over whether to take legally allowed one percent increase in the City’s property tax levy. Here’s an example from a Mr. Dow of Altamont Heights:
Who else has done the math? Ready for dollars per day increase in property tax? Yup 1% property tax increase. Rent will go up again! Possibly by hundreds. And for what? I’m sure the Spokane city council could cut out some useless items, and find the funds. Nope, they pass it on to us.
He “did the math” alright, and, in so doing, got it totally wrong, not that, given the news coverage and the complexity of the topic, that he should be much faulted for his misunderstanding. Scarier were the dozens of comments that followed on Mr. Dow’s post as others piled on. The overall tone of the comments was at least “Vote them out!” with some comments verging on “Bring out your pitchforks, string them up!”
The headline of the news article in the Spokesman by Emry Dinman that Mr. Dow is playing off of is as bad as Mr. Dow’s math, “Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward vetoes City Council-approved 1% property tax hike”. Isn’t a “1% property tax hike” pretty clear? You might be excused for simply multiplying your last year’s tax bill by 1% (0.01). Let’s say that last year’s bill was close to an average $4000. The terrifying “City Council-approved 1% property tax hike” is then $40. First, note $40 is not “hundreds” as Mr. Dow inflammatorily suggests, but that isn’t even the right calculation.
The “hike” of the headline is a one percent rise in the City of Spokane’s total levy amount, the amount of money in dollars that the City can collect in property taxes the following year spread out among all the property within the City limits. For Spokesman subscribers who actually read the article, its author, Emry Dinman, even writes “a cost of a few dollars to most property owners”, NOT the “hundreds” of Mr. Dow’s post. But the damage is done. Thanks to these headlines and the spreading misinformation/miscalculation on Nextdoor some number of folks will bolster their internal anti-tax, anti-government, anti-one-particular political party narrative.
The trouble with all this is with the required messaging. Frequent few-word, subtle misinformation like “1% property tax hike” (intentional or not) leaves a lasting impression in the minds of people who lack the time, resources, and inclination to puzzle out the full story. Any time the counter to a simplistic (and wrong) statement requires paragraphs to explain, the person offering the counter argument starts at a distinct disadvantage. Trying to understand and then explain the complexity of property tax determinations in the State of Washington is mind-bendingly daunting.
That said, here are a few relevant concepts to keep in mind:
Any increase in property taxes in Washington State that will appear on your tax bill is constrained by multiple legal limits on the taxing authority of the (many) taxing districts in which your property is located. Big changes in the average property tax bill cannot happen without voter approval.
The assessed value of your property is relevant to your next year’s tax bill only in proportion to the assessed value of all the property contained in a particular tax district’s boundaries. Imagine a tax district in which the assessed value of every property doubled from one year to the next year. For simplicity, let’s also assume that the allowed 1% levy rise was NOT voted in. In this case of a doubling of the assessed value of each and every property, the levy rate (expressed as dollars per thousand of assessed value) would be cut in half—and the taxing district would collect the same total dollar value in property tax as it did the year before. However, in the unlikely event that the assessed value of your property doubled while the value of all the rest of the property in your taxing district stayed the same, your particular property’s tax bill would double while everyone else’s remained the same. (There are caveats to all of this, but none of them would materially affect the conclusions.)
Also, keep in mind that in Washington State the total tax bill paid on a property is made up of levy rates determined by multiple overlapping tax districts, each multiplied by the assessed value, not just, for example, the levy rate imposed by the City of Spokane. To explore this, look at your detailed property tax bill (or access the details of your property by entering your address at https://cp.spokanecounty.org/scout/map/ and clicking “View more parcel information” on the page you see.
This is the sort of material that ought to be taught in a combined “practical math plus civics” course in high school—and offered to all citizens.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. For more (and perhaps clearer) examples of how levy rates and assessed values inter-relate see Calculating the Property Tax Levy.
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