Five people are running for the position of Pierce County assessor/treasurer. Incumbent Dale Washam faces four challengers seeking to unseat him. One is Pierce County Councilmember Tim Farrell, a Tacoma resident who must leave his current position due to term limits. Two are former members of Tacoma City Council who both stepped down after reaching their term limits, Spiro Manthou and Mike Lonergan. The other challenger is Billie Barnes, an employee of the Assessor/Treasurer’s Office. Washam did not respond to a request to answer questions.
Q) Why are you the best candidate for this position?
O'BRIEN: I am the best candidate for this position because of my background, knowledge and experience. I have worked in the Assessor/Treasurer’s Office for more than 21 years as an appraiser, a supervisor, manager and acting chief deputy assessor-treasurer. I have worked in the field appraising properties and supervised residential appraisal staff. My current position as administrative manager, which I have held for more than nine years, has responsibility for all non-appraisal related functions performed in the office. I am accredited to appraise property by the State of Washington, and I have more than 500 hours of appraisal and assessment education. I already know the systems, the staff, the statutes and the issues facing the office. I have worked closely with other county offices, taxing districts, the Washington State Department of Revenue and the Washington State Association of County Treasurers and County Assessors. The contacts I have made will serve the office, the county and the taxpayers. I do not need time to learn on the job, I will be able to begin serving Pierce County’s taxpayers on the day that I take office.
FARRELL: My vision for the office is to change the culture from one of fear and intimidation to one of creativity and collaboration. I believe that we need to move forward past the mistakes of the current administration. I have a master’s degree in business administration and have completed coursework in appraisal and assessment practices from the state Department of Revenue. My experience working in the legislature and my seven years on the Pierce County Council make me the right candidate to bring a fresh set of eyes to the Assessor/Treasurer’s Office.
LONERGAN: I offer the voters exactly what is needed to fix the serious problems in the assessor’s office: 18 years of successful, ethical experience as chief executive of private businesses and non-profits – experience that no other candidate has. I led a staff of 65 women and men at the Tacoma Rescue Mission, taking charge at a time the organization had serious problems. Together we achieved the highest national accreditation, “certified excellent,” and recognition as one of the three “Best Places to Work” in Pierce County. I will provide the same high standard of leadership and integrity as your assessor/treasurer.
I am proud to be endorsed by most County Council members, and by a past president of the State Association of County Assessors. My education includes a bachelor of arts degree from University of Washington, Magna Cum Laude, and the Local Government Executives Program at Harvard University. Paula and I have lived in Tacoma 29 years, raising two sons and enjoying five grandchildren.
MANTHOU: I would bring more than 28 years of successful management and leadership skills to the position. Also, I bring unique political experience of being the former deputy mayor and an eight-year Tacoma City Council member. I am open, honest, fair and transparent in my leadership style, and have been successful in bringing efficiencies to the workplace.
Q) When speaking with voters, what is the biggest concern they express in terms of their property taxes?
O'BRIEN: The biggest concern, and question, I am hearing most often right now is “why are my taxes going up when my assessed value is going down?” It is difficult for taxpayers to understand how their values can continue to decline but they do not see that same drop in the property tax they are paying. Assessed values are only one part of the equation for calculating property taxes; the other piece is the levy rate in the area where the property is located. Levy rates are determined by dividing the budget submitted by the taxing districts that provide services to the property by the total assessed value within that district. Even when district budgets stay the same, when overall values decrease the levy rate may increase and this can mean the property tax will stay the same or even go up.
FARRELL: I have found that the lack of transparency and ineffective communication of the current administration is of major concern to the voters. Taxpayers have questions on how taxes are calculated, where to find information on tax rates in neighboring jurisdictions, and what types of tax deferral and exemption programs are available to them.
We need to change how the office works with the public. We need to be more transparent and we need to give the taxpayers information to the questions they ask in a manner that is useful to them. If elected, I will improve communication to insure the public has access to the information they need.
LONERGAN: Taxpayers are surprised at how much their home assessed values have gone down, and even more surprised that in many cases their taxes still went up. As assessor/treasurer, I will conduct an effective information campaign to help them understand how those numbers are arrived at, how the 1-percent limit works, and an easy guide to appealing if they believe a mistake has been made. Taxpayers also deserve a better understanding of the exemptions and deferrals available to senior, disabled and limited income. I will also inform the public where their property tax money goes – mostly to schools and the state, with less than most people realize for the county and cities.
MANTHOU: Having them done fairly and honestly, as well as having trust and confidence in the Assessor/Treasurer’s Office that assessments are performed with respect to the taxpayer.
Q) What could be done to improve the relationship between this office and Pierce County Council?
O'BRIEN: In my experience the relationship between this office and the council has not always been an adversarial one. I am committed to creating a professional and open atmosphere in the Assessor/Treasurer’s Office, where taxpayers, staff and everyone we do business with is treated with respect. I have always worked successfully with the council and I believe that opening up lines of communication again will allow us to work together in the best interest of the taxpayers of Pierce County.
FARELL: As a current member of the council, I share their frustration with the current administration. I believe that the council and the public want the same thing. They want someone with a fresh perspective who will change the culture of the office. We need to treat people with respect, instill a level of professionalism in the office, and improve communication with the council and the taxpayers to make the office more efficient and effective.
LONERGAN: I have excellent relationships with the members of Pierce County Council, having worked with most of them while I chaired Pierce County Regional Council and served as Tacoma deputy mayor and City Council member. The current assessor’s relationship with almost every part of county government has been adversarial – some have said “toxic.” The County Council, shocked at the $1.5 million cost to taxpayers for settling claims against the incumbent, cast a unanimous “vote of no confidence,” which has been ignored. The most important relationship I will restore is the public’s trust and confidence that the work of the assessor/treasurer is being done in a fair and honorable way.
MANTHOU: Establishing positive relationships with council members and the county executive. While on City Council I served on numerous boards and commissions with most of the County Council and the county executive. I have already developed these important relationships.
Q) Are there changes to the appraisal process you would like to make?
O'BRIEN: The appraisal process, for the most part, is regulated by statute. There are appraisal functions that must be performed and there are specific statutory timelines that must be met. To meet those requirements in an efficient and cost-effective manner I will make sure that all staff are utilized according to their knowledge and abilities. A new six-year revaluation plan needs to be developed to ensure that parcel counts in each year are equalized so that all years have similar workloads, which will allow for clearer planning. The process for appeals needs to be streamlined for taxpayers. Working with appraisal staff, all processes will need to be looked at, within the framework of the statutes, to determine if current procedures make for the most efficient way to accomplish the tasks we are required to perform. Working with the other assessors’ offices we need to look at the current definition of physical inspection and determine if changes should be made to the statutes to allow assessors to use technology to save time and money while still performing the duties required.
FARRELL: Our current appraisal and assessment procedures need to be made more efficient and effective. Taxpayers should not pay a penny more in property taxes than is required. Currently the Legislature mandates that the Assessor/Treasurer’s Office place a value on all parcels of property, even those that are publicly owned. Researching, inspecting and calculating a value on Stadium High School or Wapato Park is a time-consuming act that accomplishes nothing for the taxpayer. I have been speaking with legislators from both parties and I will lobby Olympia to end this wasteful practice.
I would also like to extend the physical inspection requirement from six years to 10 years for parcels of land that are used for forestry, agriculture or are vacant. This gives the Assessor/Treasurer’s Office time to focus on residential and commercial properties so that we can deliver a more accurate appraisal of value.
LONERGAN: A top priority must be more timely assessment of all new construction, to help pay for government services without raising taxes on others. Ongoing computer hardware and software upgrades are needed to efficiently appraise Pierce County’s 330,000 parcels of property. Staff assignments should put the best people in the right positions, not used as rewards or punishment by the assessor. I will de-mystify the appraisal process by allowing taxpayers easy online access to values of comparable properties. Other possible changes, such as replacing required on-site inspections every six years with reviews of satellite imagery, would require a change in state law.
MANTHOU: I believe any tool available that is currently used across the country such as satellite imaging, Zillow, building permit information, personal inspection, comparables, market conditions, etc. should be explored and, if beneficial, used to develop the process in assessing property taxes. The program needs to be developed that is consistent, fair and understandable by the public.