2/11/2015 8:56:00 AM Some County 'Valentines' will be shocking Property tax hikes up to 22 percent
Each year Skagit County Treasurer Katie Jungquist’s office mails out property tax bills to land right around Valentine’s Day. The goal is not so much to put a damper on the day, it’s just that the schedule calls for the bills to be delivered in mid-February. But this year, the county’s “Valentines” were still at the printer on Tuesday, and Jungquist said she expects they’ll be in the mail early next week. Even so, anyone anxious to know what they’ll be paying in property taxes this year can look it up on the county’s website, www.skagitcounty.net, where the new tax bills have been posted since the tax levies were certified last week. In the La Conner area, some home owners are in for a nasty surprise. Many of the properties in the town of La Conner were reassessed. The new values, coupled with absorbing a portion of the burden left when 931 parcels on tribal land were taken off the tax rolls this year, have caused some tax bills to bounce up by 22 percent. Properties in the area that weren’t given higher assessed values have tax hikes ranging from 5 to 8 percent. Snooping through the county’s website — which is something reporters do all the time — shows that four members of the La Conner Town Council, Jacques Brunisholz, Bill Stokes, Dan O’Donnell and MaryLee Chamberlain, had their assessed property values adjusted upwards and will be getting new tax bills that are more than 20 percent higher than last year. Chamberlain, whose property tax is going up 21 percent said, “it feels like it’s gone very quickly from the time we first learned about this and now it’s translating to our pocket books.” “I’m not going to move because of it,” said Brunisholz, whose tax bill is going up by nearly $600. He said he believes the tax disparities will eventually work themselves out. O’Donnell, whose tax bill is going up by around $512 this year, said he believes the shift of the tax burden will “lead to a tight-fisted analysis” of things like the tribe’s sewer contract with the town. He said the town’s relationship with the tribe is apt to change. “They’re a business,” he said. Mayor Ramon Hayes has a property tax bill going up about $265 — around 6 percent. His increase is smaller because his home’s assessed value didn’t go up this past year. “I’m getting off fairly easy here,” Hayes said. “But some people are having huge increases.” The Great Wolf decision, he said, caused the tax burden to shift to a smaller group of taxpayers. “That’s why we’re seeing these increases, and this needs to be addressed,” he said. Hayes said he’s hopeful that the public agencies and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community will be able to come up with a solution to the issues facing taxpayers and the agencies they fund. The Great Wolf decision was based on a Thurston County case in which a federal court ruled that all buildings on land held in trust by the federal government for Indian tribes is exempt from taxes, regardless of who owns the structure. The appeal window for that ruling ran out last July. For decades, homes in Shelter Bay Community, which was developed mostly on leased land on the Swinomish Reservation, and homes in the Pull and Be Damned Road neighborhood have been assessed personal property tax. Last year the homes generated some $1.8 million in tax revenue, which the county collected and funneled to nine agencies, including La Conner School District, La Conner Library District and Fire District 13. With those properties now off the tax rolls, the bills have shifted to the remaining taxpayers. Although state and county taxes have spread out over a large tax base, causing increases of a few cents, the school tax is the biggest amount shifted to the remaining two-thirds of the taxpayers in the district, which encompasses about 2,500 parcels. Hayes pointed out that the tribe did a good thing when the Swinomish Senate put the kibosh on the possibility of the owners of the 931 now tax-exempt homes obtaining tax refunds going back three years. The tribe essentially laid claim to property taxes going back to 2011 and decreed the money would stay with the agencies already funded. Going forward, the tribe has said it plans to tax the 931 parcels at the same rate that privately owned property is taxed. The tribe has said that its new taxing authority will help fund vital tribal government services. Also, the tribe decided that this year it will contribute money to the schools, library, fire district and Medic One ambulance service from the taxes it collects. But the promised contributions don’t fill the funding gap, especially for the La Conner School District, which passed a $20 million school renovation bond last year. Voters on the tax-exempt parcels approved the school bond measure 2-1. Tribal attorney Stephen LeCuyer could not be reached yesterday to say when the tribe intends to send out its tax bills. Shelter Bay Community Manager Dave Franklin said his office has been told the bills are likely to be later than the county bills but had no recent update on a timeline.