TACOMA — Pierce County has the highest average property tax rate in Washington, higher than more populous and affluent King County or any of the other 37 counties in the state.
The average tax rate for Pierce County this year is $15.43 per $1,000 of assessed property value, according to the state Department of Revenue. That's nearly $1 more than second-place Clark County and nearly $3 more than the statewide average.
Its closest neighbor counties — Thurston and King — ranked sixth and 20th, respectively.
Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Mike Lonergan said he knew the county's average tax rate was high, but he didn't know it was the highest until told by a reporter. The News Tribune analyzed Washington's property tax rates county-by-county for the period starting in 2006.
The rates can vary widely according to where a particular property is located, and the reasons for the No. 1 ranking are complex.
But one big reason Pierce County tops the list is school taxes, Lonergan said.
Schools account for 57 percent of property tax collections, which is slightly more than the state average. School levies and bonds — all voter-approved — comprise the bulk (39 percent) of those school tax collections, while the rest (18 percent) go to the state for basic education.
Lonergan said local residents have been generous in supporting schools and fire districts. County voters tend to approve most levy and bond measures, he said.
Consider that thousands of Tacoma, Fircrest and other nearby voters supported a $500 million Tacoma school bond measure in February. It won more than 70 percent approval — the best showing in decades.
But because most residential property values in Pierce County fall within the moderate range, the tax rate must be set higher than in counties with higher property values just to raise the same amount of revenue, Lonergan said.
Property values plunged by 20 percent in Pierce County during the past five years, Lonergan said. But costs for education, police and fire protection didn't go down. As a result, the tax rate increased, he said.
That doesn't mean property owners are shelling out more to the tax collector than their peers in other counties.
For example, the average Pierce County homeowner pays less total property tax than the average King County owner because the average residential property in Pierce is assessed at $196,117 this year, compared with $335,725 in King County.
Taxes can be confusing
Jerry Gibbs, who helped lead the campaign against the Peninsula School District's $50 million capital levy this month, said the entire tax rate issue confuses people. That's because the rate constantly changes to keep pace with assessed values and generate an authorized amount of money, he said.
If voters choose to increase their taxes, Gibbs said, that's their prerogative.
In the case of Peninsula's four-year capital levy, voters chose to say "no." It would have added $1.42 per $1,000 of assessed value to their tax burden, starting next year.
Lonergan said 43 percent of the taxes collected in Pierce are voter-approved, usually for school and fire districts.
County Council Chairwoman Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, said the high tax rate reflects those voter-approved increases.
County council members did add a tax of about 10 cents per $1,000 valuation for flood control starting this year. McDonald said that tax is very small but is needed for the economic well-being of families in Pierce County.
Pierce County's No. 1 tax-rate ranking is a recent phenomenon.
The county also ranked first last year at $13.87 per $1,000 of valuation. But it was fourth in 2011 and 12th in 2010.
Like most other Washington counties, its rate rose steadily during the recession.
Property taxes are made up of levies established by local taxing districts such as counties, cities, schools, libraries, fire districts, parks districts and emergency medical services.
Within the county, rate varies widely.
Homeowners in the Franklin Pierce School District pay $17.70 per $1,000 of valuation. Franklin Pierce voters approved a capital levy last year, adding to their taxes.
The tax rate for most of Tacoma is $17.51, of which $7.93 goes to the Tacoma School District.
Some city residents in small areas of southeast Tacoma, which fall within the Franklin Pierce School District, pay the highest rate of $18.68 per $1,000, Lonergan said. Residents in nearly all of the city of Gig Harbor pay the lowest tax rate of $11.31 per $1,000, Lonergan said.
The reasons putting Pierce County at the top are complex and go beyond schools.
Pierce County has some countywide taxes that most counties don't have. There's a tax of 18 cents per $1,000 of valuation for the Port of Tacoma and the flood-control tax of 10 cents per $1,000.
There also are several metropolitan park districts, which add from 26 cents to $1.15 per $1,000 to the tax rate.
Another factor centers on commercial and industrial properties. They pay the same rate as residential properties in each taxing district.
Historically, the county's largest employer has been Joint Base Lewis-McChord. But because it's federal property, it is not on the tax rolls.