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Clark County homeowners take a hit as property taxes pile up

State school levy, increased values create sticker shock

By , Columbian Education Reporter
Published: April 30, 2018, 6:01am

Ridgefield resident Virginia Roberts was expecting her property taxes to go up this year. After all, they’re going up everywhere.

But when she saw her bill for $4,139.68 — a nearly 30 percent increase from last year — for her and her husband’s three-bedroom ranch home, she was taken aback.

“All of a sudden it’s a thousand dollars we have to figure out how to come up with,” Roberts said. “That’s quite a chunk.”

Property owners in Clark County and around the state experienced sticker shock on seeing this year’s tax statements, which included considerable spikes from last year’s bills due to increasing property values, voter-approved initiatives and the new state schools levy approved by the Legislature last year. The first half of property tax bills is due today.

The Columbian recently ran a reader survey asking homeowners about changes in their property tax bills from 2017 to 2018. Some among the 50 verifiable responses said the increases posed no new hardships, or otherwise said their adjustments would be minimal.

But others described the increases as “painful,” shared fears that they may have to move out of the area in the coming years or expressed frustration that their limited Social Security income does not cover the cost of living in Clark County.

Roberts was among those who were frustrated, writing that a “30 percent tax increase can’t be planned for.”

“A thousand dollars, that to me is just way out of line,” she said in an interview with the Columbian.

One-year bump

Despite this year’s inflated tax bills, relief is coming next year, county officials and state legislators say.

“The biggest concern obviously is why, and basically, is this the new normal,” Clark County Assessor Peter Van Nortwick said. “The good news is the answer is ‘No.’ ”

Property owners across Clark County saw tax rate increases ranging from 42 cents per $1,000 in assessed value in Vancouver city limits, to $2.76 per $1,000 in assessed value in rural north Clark County.

A significant driver of increased taxes this year is the state schools tax approved during last year’s marathon legislative session. In response to the 2012 McCleary Supreme Court decision, which said the state was failing to meet its constitutionally mandated duty to fully pay for schools, state legislators last year approved a levy swap to pay for schools. That raised the state schools property tax rate to $2.70 per $1,000 in assessed value while capping local levies at $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed value. Locally, taxpayers are paying $2.89 per $1,000 in assessed value due to adjustments made by the state Department of Revenue.

But only the first part went into effect this year, meaning taxpayers across the state are paying both the full state schools levy, as well as the voter-approved levies set by their area school districts. The drop in local maintenance and operations levies will go into effect next year.

Vancouver Public Schools’ maintenance and operations levy rate is about $2.65 per $1,000 in assessed value, according to Clark County Assessor’s Office records. Evergreen Public Schools’ is $3.22 per $1,000 in assessed value. Battle Ground Public Schools’ is $3.42 per $1,000 in assessed value.

Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, one of the key negotiators in the funding package, said she’s heard significant concern from her constituents who, she said, don’t recognize their increased tax bill is a “one-time bump.”

“It’s short-term pain for long-term gain,” she said.

Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, blamed Republicans for this year’s high tax spike, saying the conservative politicians were “not interested in diversifying” the state’s revenue.

“It was the property tax they wanted or nothing,” Stonier said.

Despite her criticisms, Stonier voted to support the spending bill in 2017. When pressed on her vote, Stonier chalked it up to “the art of negotiation.”

“I voted not to shut down government in my view,” she said.

Seniors 61 or older and people with disabilities can receive a property tax exemption if their household income is $40,000 or less. Those who qualify for the program have the value of their residence frozen for property tax purposes and exempts the household from all excess and special levies, as well as part of the state school levy. In Clark County, 6,494 households receive the exemption.

Family stunned

This year’s increased property taxes remain tough to swallow for families like the Skalings.

Michael Skaling, 80, and his wife, Marilyn, have lived in the Chelatchie Prairie area in a manufactured home for about 22 years. Like Roberts, they were stunned to open their property tax statement to find an unexpected increase — their taxes had gone up 53.8 percent, from $1,959.99 to $3,015.37.

That’s due in part to the increased valuation of their home, which rose by 26.14 percent from $181,458 to $228,897, as well as the North County EMS ambulance service levy in the area. The new state schools tax added $233.19 to their tax bill, about a fifth of the overall increase.

“We can pay it, mostly because we have to, and it won’t make a real hardship but it’s definitely an inconvenience,” Michael Skaling said.

While Skaling and his wife’s lives won’t be drastically impacted by the increases — they’re planning to cut back on some travel, he said — he feels for those who saw similar tax increases who may struggle to pay them.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of them in the same boat as us,” he said. “I feel sorry for them.”

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