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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Assessing the Assessor

This winter/spring, we got our 'pending assessments' of property notices.  Happens every year.  Every year, the number goes up a little, but in light of the real property crash here (like most places), we all assumed that property values would go down in the 2011 assessment.  You can imagine our surprise when we discovered that our houses were worth more than they were the year before and to a person we pretty much doubted that that was an accurate assessment, comparatively.

But, at least for most of the people I know, it was still, as a number, somewhat lower than what we imagined we might be able to sell it for, so we didn't call up the assessor to demand our money back, or the equivalence thereof.  But some people did, and there were notices out on Point Interface urging people to call the Assessor's Office and request explanations.

It all did seem particularly strange when word began to seep around that Point Roberts properties were the only properties in the County whose assessments increased.  Had everybody's assessments gone up, I would probably have assumed that it was Whatcom County's way of increasing its income.  But since we came up unevenly, maybe an accurate but inexplicable assessment?  Or inaccurate?

The local Taxpayer Association asked the Whatcom County Assessor to come up and explain this anomalous result at a meeting last night.  Alas, he got held up at the border--failure to have a Nexus Card-- and arrived just as the meeting was about to disband.  But, having come to hear him, people hung around to listen.

He was remarkably unlike a politician, I thought.  Or like the ones who are said to be just like somebody you'd like to have a beer with.  Since I don't drink beer, there's nobody I'd like to have a beer with, but I could imagine sitting down with a pizza, say.  Although he would be eating the larger portion, I think.

His office is actually non-partisan.  He's been in the Assessor's Office for 30 years and for 23 years has been elected time after time as County Assessor.  He's running for office again this fall but no one is running against him.  Seems good qualifications for a guy who's either doing a reasonable job or sponsored by the mob in a mob-run town.  No evidence of the latter, so probably he's doing a reasonable job.

He proceeded to explain to this audience of about 35 folks how assessing is done.  His is a highly technical and difficult job: how to establish a dollar value for every house in the County.  If you’ve ever sold a house, the real estate agent, who knows a lot about house sale prices, gives you a big range for what your house might be worth and then recommends a single price.  And if times are good, maybe you’ll get something near that, but even then, probably not.  Because nobody knows what a house is worth until somebody is willing to pay for it with actual dollars.  

So, the poor Assessor pours over the actual sale prices and looks at some portion (in his case, one-sixth) of the actual houses each year and talks with real estate people and follows the real estate market and calculates complex mathematical models and algorithms each year  to establish a better than average guess about what every single property might sell for.  And when he is done, he says, “Here’s what I think.”  And if you disagree with what he thinks, you can ask to discuss it with them.  

And if you don’t disagree enough with what he thinks, then you let it go.   The problem is that if you don’t understand mathematical modeling and algorithmic projections, you are going to be in for some difficulty.  He says potatoes, you say potahtoes.  And you can’t call the whole thing off.  I'm not a mathematician, so I don't really know what he’s talking about but, in the old days, you would credit his competence and good intentions and unless you had some really compelling information to change his position, his view about the value of your house would stand, and you would go on being fellow-citizens.  Nowadays, though,  as a result of the anti-government fervor that has taken hold in lots of places, we often have no trust in an official's competence or his good intentions and insufficient acknowledgement or appreciation of our own lack of understanding of what his job actually is and how it is done.  

What seemed to be the bottom line is that Point Roberts was last assessed individually four years ago.  In the intervening years (2006-2010), our property values went up and then went down, but they didn't go as far down as they went up, so over the four years, the appreciation was about 10%.  Other areas, like Birch Bay and Blaine and Semiahmoo, went down farther than they went up over the four years, so their property values depreciated some.  Seems like it could happen.  But, as the Assessor repeated time and again, what his office is trying to do is make a good estimate of a property's value and every area is not going to be the same.  It's not rocket science: it's much harder than rocket science.  If people complain, he can show them what the office has considered, has taken into account, and if you, as a property owner, have some special information that the office didn't know about or take into account, they will try to incorporate it to the extent that it's relevant.  But you really can't prove they are wrong and they can't really prove they are right.  

It's a hard job and somebody has to do it and by and large, I found that I'm willing to trust the Whatcom County Assessor, even if I and probably most of the people at the meeting don't really understand exactly what he is doing.  I don't understand what lots of people who do technical things are doing.  But if I listen to them talk about their work, I can kind of get a sense of whether they're serious people with the right attitude to their work.  That may be the best most of us can do, so I appreciate his coming up to let us judge him.  But I really think he should get a Nexus Card if he's going to be roaming around Whatcom County, if only to expand his understanding of the way we live now: the we being those of us in Point Roberts who, like our assessments, are quite different from everyone else in Whatcom County.  

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