Brush Prairie couple take on the tax man

They plan a second appeal after property value triples due to repairs from tree damage

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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BRUSH PRAIRIE -- If a tree falls on a home, will the Clark County Assessor’s Office hear about it?

Eventually, yes.

And in the case of Earl and Clydene Gere of Brush Prairie, the repairs to their 1977 mobile home to fix damage inflicted by Mother Nature resulted in a 161 percent increase in property value, with a corresponding increase in property taxes. And it wasn’t even their tree -- it fell from the lot next door.

However, their property value increased from $9,802 to $25,620.

Last year, they owed $124 in property taxes. This year, they owe $326.40.

“We’re being penalized for having a tree fall on our house, and having an in

surance company pay for it,” said Clydene on May 2, three years to the day a thunderstorm sent a cedar tree into the west end of their doublewide mobile home at Country Manor Mobile Village.

The couple appealed the assessed value to the Clark County Board of Equalization but an April 27 ruling did not go in their favor. They said they will press their case with the state Board of Tax Appeals.

Clark County Assessor Peter Van Nortwick, however, said his office doesn’t have to consider the size of increase in assessed value or the reason for the improvements.

“Our mandate is to assess properties on a mass basis at approximately 100 percent of market value,” Van Nortwick wrote in an email.

The Geres’ insurance company paid for $87,000 worth of repairs; Clydene said she and her husband spent $12,000 on energy efficient vinyl windows -- which the insurance company would not pay for -- after deciding the savings in their utility bills would be worth it.

The insurance company, working with a contractor, picked T1-11 siding and composition roof, both upgrades over the original aluminum siding and metal roof.

Had those upgrades been their choice, they would have an easier time accepting the higher assessed value, Clydene Gere said.

The Geres are also upset that the assessor’s office now has their 1977 home listed as having an “effective year built” date as 1986.

“We can’t sell the house as a 1986,” said Earl, 69, a retired wedding photographer who works at an auto parts store.

The couple bought the home in 1977 for $21,500.

The home retains its original plumbing, wiring and framing.

“It’s not like it’s a brand-new house,” Clydene said.

Van Nortwick said appraisers use a weighted calculator to determine effective age; appraisers can enter the year improvements were made and the result is the “effective” year. Many older properties have an effective year that is newer than the year they were built; county property records list both effective and construction years.

“Assume we have two homes next to each other, identical in design and both built in 1955,” Van Nortwick wrote. “If one has been recently remodeled, it will sell for more because the house would appear to be newer than a 1955 home that has never been updated. Since the remodeled home has a higher market value, there must be a convention when appraising a property to account for a remodeled home versus a non-remodeled home. That convention is effective age.”

Appeals process

Less than 1 percent of property owners challenge assessed values, Van Nortwick said.

While the details of cases differ, the Geres’ appeal to the Board of Equalization was like most appeals in that they wanted a lower value, said Darren Wertz, clerk to the board. Wertz said the board occasionally receives requests to raise the assessed value.

Property owners have the burden of proof, Wertz said.

“This requirement is clearly stated in the appeals process,” he wrote in an email. “On the appeal form, it states that, ‘The assessor is, by law, presumed to be correct. You must prove that the appraised valuation is not the true and fair market value.’”

Members of the three-person Board of Equalization are appointed by Clark County commissioners. As to how often the board changes the value, it’s difficult to spot a trend. Of 937 cases heard in 2009-10, the board changed the assessed value only 16 percent of the time. In 2010-11, the board heard 236 cases, and changed the value 53 percent of the time. In 2011-12, the board has heard 114 appeals, and has changed the value 66 percent of the time.

There’s still 512 cases to be heard for 2011-12, Wertz said.

When the Geres received their notice of assessed value last fall, they didn’t waste time going to the Clark County Assessor’s Office in the Clark County Public Service Center in downtown Vancouver. The value was $31,254; it was dropped to $25,620 after the Geres explained that what an appraiser thought was an extra room was really an enclosed porch.

It was the $25,620 figure that was appealed to the Board of Equalization.

Adding to the shock was that although the tree fell on the mobile home on May 2, 2009, and the repairs were done that year, the value didn’t increase until 2011. The Geres stayed in the plastic-covered home for a month while the contractor secured permits from the county, then moved in with relatives while the work was done.

The Geres were back in their home Oct. 2, 2009.

The value of their home even dropped after the accident, from $11,200 to $9,802.

By law, the exterior of properties are physically inspected once every six years. A county appraiser looked at the Gere’s home in May 2011, Van Nortwick said.

Storm damage

During a May 2, 2009, thunderstorm, a Vancouver weather spotter reported nearly a half-inch of rain falling in 10 minutes. Wind gusts were recorded as high as 45 mph at Portland International Airport.

Clydene was home. She said the pressure from the storm sounded like a freight train and when a 40-foot-top section of a 100-foot-tall cedar tree broke off and slammed into the west end of their mobile home, it took a moment to register what had happened. She called Earl at work.

“I didn’t need to hold the phone next to my ear,” Earl said.

Photographs of the tree on the house don’t look too dramatic, but Clydene said the impact cracked or broke just about every single roof truss and jarred cabinets off the walls. Rain poured inside, and by the time the Geres moved out to stay with relatives, both were showing symptoms of mold exposure.

Their insurance policy was worth $103,000; the insurance company would have given the couple up to $45,000 to put toward a new home and they considered the idea. They found homes for $70,000 and decided it was cheaper to let the insurance company pay for the repairs.

Yes, their home looks better now, Clydene said, but it’s still a 35-year-old home.

And while they disagree with the county’s assessment of their home’s market value, the couple has no plans to sell.

“We’ve already told the owner that when we die, we’re going to be cremated and our ashes will be spread under the home,” said Clydene, laughing.

“So we can haunt this place,” her husband added.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.