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Jan. 19, 2020

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Clark County assessor hopefuls clash on issues

Candidates say fairness in property values, taxes at issue

By , Columbian political reporter
Published:

Both candidates for Clark County assessor agree the job involves representing the interests of the taxpayers. But Darren Wertz, a Ridgefield city councilor running as a Republican, said that he would do a better job than incumbent Peter Van Nortwick, also a Republican.

“I think what I would have to do is reestablish that trust with the office and enhance that trust with the public so things will work with less friction,” Wertz said.

Wertz touted his work with the county’s Board of Equalization, as both chair and clerk, and on the Ridgefield Planning Commission.

But Van Nortwick, who was first elected in 2010, defended his record, arguing that his decisions have been aimed at making sure taxpayers aren’t being unfairly burdened.

“That’s our job, to protect the taxpayers,” he said. He again pointed out that a report by the Washington State Department of Revenue shows he is accurately assessing properties.

The assessor’s office has a 2018 annual budget of $4.2 million and 42 full-time employees. The assessor is paid $114,509, annually. The assessor is responsible for determining the assessed value of more than 170,000 parcels of property. The assessed value has a direct bearing on each property owner’s tax bill. If one property is undervalued, it means someone else’s tax bill is higher.

In the August primary, Van Nortwick and Wertz advanced to the general election with 42.68 percent of the vote and 32.08 percent, respectively. No Democrat entered the race.

In an interview with The Columbian, Wertz said he doesn’t mean to criticize Van Nortwick but still raised multiple issues with his record. The most pointed was Wertz calling attention to a 2014 state audit that contained a finding that the county assessor’s office “did not comply with state law when it adjusted a previously certified property value.”

“That really hurts the credibility of the assessor’s office,” Wertz said.

The audit was in response to a citizen concern regarding a $83,078 reduction in property value made by Van Nortwick. The auditor’s report states that the owner of the property appealed their assessment but didn’t show up for their hearing with the Board of Equalization, which considers appeals.

The audit found that Van Nortwick still improperly made the modification to the property, based on appraisal judgment and not on the correction of an error.

The response offered by Van Nortwick in the report contested the finding. He stated that the adjustment was made in response to an error caused by the misapplication of statistical data. Van Nortwick still maintains he was correcting an error caused by a glitch in a table used to assess properties.

“They never even questioned that I was right and the value was right,” Van Nortwick said.

Wertz criticized Van Nortwick’s support in 2011 for proposed legislation that would allow counties to charge commercial property owners up to $500 to appeal their assessed values. Wertz said that the proposed legislation, which didn’t pass, was anti-economic development and would have been unfair to property owners wanting to challenge the assessor’s decision.

Property owners who wish to dispute their assessed values can appeal to the Board of Equalization. Van Nortwick said the legislation was proposed shortly after he took office and was backed at the time by the Washington State Association of County Assessors. He said that tax agents for commercial properties will appeal assessed values en mass, often with little evidence, which is time consuming for his office.

Van Nortwick said that he dropped the issue and made some changes to his office to make responding to appeals more effective.

In 2015, Van Nortwick began auditing 2,773 parcels of land enrolled in the state’s Current Use Farm and Agriculture program. The program gives farmers a break on their property taxes if they are actually producing livestock or crops. Van Nortwick’s audit was meant to determine if these property owners were meeting the program’s requirements, and he brought penalties against those who weren’t.

Wertz said that the county assessor has discretion in enforcing this program’s requirements. The intent of the law, he said, is to preserve open space. Enforcing the law in this way undermines its intent because it would force burdened farmers to divide and sell their land, causing a loss of open space, he said.

“A farmer of retirement age should continue living on their land,” Wertz said. “Family farmers deserve protection.”

Van Nortwick said farmers in this program enter a contract that needs to be upheld, otherwise their tax burden is shifted to others.

“The bottom line is when someone makes an agreement with the county, I need to make sure that they live up to the agreement,” Van Nortwick said.

Wertz also took issue with a proposal floated in 2016 by Van Nortwick and Clark County Treasurer Doug Lasher to study merging smaller counties in Washington with their larger neighbors in order to save costs. The idea ended up going nowhere in the Legislature, but Wertz said it was an idea based on questionable numbers that would take away local control from counties.

Van Nortwick responded that some of Washington’s sparsely populated counties aren’t financially sustainable. He said he proposed the idea, not necessarily to consolidate counties, but to highlight the problem and focus on possible solutions, such as regionalizing services.

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