Meetings with property owners angry about their taxes might usually be viewed as an intimidating experience for the elected official responsible for determining the taxes, but King County Assessor Lloyd Hara sees such contacts as merely an opportunity to educate his "customers."
Hara, who will be running for re-election next November though he hasn't formally announced, says he generally finds that the taxpayer anger or apprehension is the result of misunderstanding of how property taxes are determined. So in addition to correcting misperceptions, he looks forward to such sessions as an opportunity for him to offer a couple of key messages that he's been delivering for years.
The first of those messages for such audiences is an attention getter: if you think your property taxes are too high it may be your own fault.
Hara doesn't actually tell taxpayers that if they think their property taxes are too high they may have themselves to blame. But he does routinely tell groups he speaks before that a third to a half of property taxes are from special levies, taxes approved by voters to impose additional taxes on themselves to pay for everything from parks to schools to emergency medical services.
"People have more control over their tax bill than they often realize," says Hara.
Hara, who was first elected assessor in 2009 to fill the unexpired term of the previous assessor, has held more appointive and elective offices locally over a longer period of time than likely anyone. He was first appointed King County Auditor in 1969 at the age of 29, youngest person ever to hold that post. In that role he achieved national recognition for his work on performance auditing of government agencies.
He was elected four times between 1980 and 1992 as Seattle City Treasurer, honored with national awards for his performance in that role.
Then he was appointed head of the regional office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and, in 2005, was elected a commissioner of the Port of Seattle.
In his assessor role, Hara's department appraises all property in the county then places a value on each parcel and determines a tax per thousand dollars of value.
The information is then passed to the county treasurer, who proceeds to send out the tax bills to each property owner for the coming year.
Hara this month had a typical meeting with Bellevue residents who were upset because the values of their property had gone up dramatically and they were concerned about taxes going up in relation to value.
Hara explained that wasn't going to happen, noting that under state law, the total tax take in the county can't increase by more than 1 percent, although some individual property owners may, for several reasons, see their taxes go up more than others. And one of those reasons is special levies.
The average impact of special levies in Seattle is about 30 percent, Hara said, while in Bellevue special levies account for about 50 percent of the average residential property-tax tab. It's clear at some of Hara's taxpayer "customer" gatherings that the levy total is a shock to some listeners.
"Proposition 1, the ballot measure on parks, was a good example," Hara said. "Everyone loves parks. So do I. But they need to be looked at in terms of relative priority, as compared, for example, with public safety."
"Unfortunately, the capacity isn't there to do all things and if we just put up a single issue that's a high-visibility one, it can get approved by a big margin, as happened with the parks measure this summer," he added. "But if the voters had a package to choose from, that single issue might suddenly be less logical when viewed holistically."
"It' possible for something to be a good thing but yet not pass muster when looked at holistically," he said, praising the League of Women Voters for taking the broader view in opposing the parks measure, which will add as much as $148 per year for the average home in the county.
The second message Hara takes the opportunity to discuss with audiences, that government consolidation may reduce your tax bill, sparks little more than a yawn. But government reorganization needs to attract more attention from elected officials, and Hara's focus on the topic by discussing the issue with taxpayer audiences may help lead toward that greater legislative interest.
Hara has been a proponent of reorganizing government to create efficiency for taxpayers since, while working in the state budget office in the late 60s, he was involved in the effort to reorganize state government into what were characterized as "super agencies" that tried to consolidate agencies by program functions.
He's been a constant advocate since then of consolidating taxing districts, taking the view that regionalization, consolidating functions of various elective offices across local or even county boundaries, may be a way that taxpayers in smaller districts or counties may be better served.
Hara wonders "how many jurisdictions should there be that taxpayers are helping support? Could some services be merged into regional units? Can some be privatized?"
It's out of such discussions that new ways of doing things at the local-government level may emerge as lawmakers and policymakers cope with new funding realities.
The website for the Assessor's office has received recognition and it may include an unusual addition next year, for which Hara has passed the first hurdle, the funds being included King County executive Dow Constantine's budget. Now the King County Council must go along.
Hara, who says Chicago was the first city to put advertising on its property tax website, admits "certain officials thought it might look a bit cheesy," but he says "it doesn't make sense to overlook possible new sources of money," which he is initially estimating at a conservative $35,000 a year.
He's also seeking legislative approval again this coming session for the right to impose a fee on appeals of assessments by commercial property tax payers, which would help defray appeal costs for other taxpayers, who must foot the bill if they wish commence a challenge to their taxes.