Property-tax time comes despite glitch at Clark County

Crash causes confusion but it could have been worse

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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photoDoug Lasher Clark County treasurer

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A weekendlong crash of Clark County's online Property Information Center couldn't have come at a worse time for Treasurer Doug Lasher.

Property taxes are due today, and the county's online repository of property information is an integral piece in allowing people to make their payments online. When it stopped communicating with data servers over the weekend, property taxpayers took notice. The online system lets people look up all publicly available information about properties countywide.

For some, the crash made it harder to file their tax payments, Lasher said, and caused confusion. But it could have been worse. Both of the county's third-party payment vendors — the systems that actually take the payments — were accepting money, as long as people had their account numbers. But if they needed to look them up using the Property Information Center, they were out of luck.

"It's a little frustrating," said Lasher, who acknowledged his office was abuzz with a little more activity than usual ahead of the payment deadline. "We're so dependent on technology right now."

Bob Pool, the county's GIS manager, chalked the problem up to inopportune timing. The department has never had the personnel to fix server problems after business hours or over the weekend.

"If it goes down, there's no one watching it," Pool said.

The department continues to look into what went wrong.

Despite the extra work fielding email and phone calls Monday, Lasher said payments had been coming in fast and furious. More of them are coming online, Lasher said, despite the system's hiccup over the weekend. The Property Information Center went back online at around 1:30 p.m. Monday and was still working Tuesday evening.

Even with the ease of paying property taxes online, there are the stragglers, or the forgetful. They'll be assessed extra charges.

Property owners have until the end of the day to pay their bills. After that, interest will start accruing. People who pay late will be assessed a 1 percent interest penalty on May 1, which will compound for every month the bill is unpaid. The county will also assess late payers a one-time 3 percent fine on June 1; if property owners keep holding out, they'll be assessed an 8 percent one-time fine on Dec. 1.

Occasionally, the county will acquire a piece of property through foreclosure. The county typically acquires around three properties a year, Lasher said. Rather than being a financial boon, the land often sits unbought for years because it's distressed or can't be built on, he said.

This year, the average property tax payment will be $3,100, according to a 2013 Washington State University Vancouver report. Embedded in those bills, people may notice a couple of changes. On top of a handful of voter-approved school district levies, another increase will come from the Greater Clark Parks District, said Assessor Peter Van Nortwick. That's because the county reached its statutory levy limit last year, so it couldn't collect more than $5.90 per $1,000 of assessed home value. The county's parks department was shorted money as a result.

The parks district will collect more money this year to make up the difference, Van Nortwick said.

Assessed home values, by and large, are on the rise. Last year, Van Nortwick said, there was a 10 to 15 percent jump. And the typical increase to assessed home values that will be reflected during the next billing cycle will be between 10 and 13 percent. That doesn't necessarily translate to a bump in tax bills, however. Typically, as values go up, levy rates dip.

Tax payments may be made at http://www.co.clark.wa.us/treasurer/property until 11:59 p.m., by phone at 877-778-4606 or in person at the Treasurer's Office, second floor of the Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St., Vancouver, until 5 p.m.

The deadline for the second round of property tax payments is Oct. 31.