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Vashon homeowners see a 14 percent jump in their property tax bills

Vashon's homeowners saw a nearly 14 percent increase in their 2010 tax bills, even as property values dropped on average nearly 8 percent, according to King County Assessor Lloyd Hara.

Tax notices were mailed out to property owners countywide last week. On Vashon, those notices show a 23 percent jump in the tax rate — from $8.50 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2009 to $10.50 per $1,000 in 2010, Hara said. That translated into an average tax bill of $5,075 in 2010 — about $606 higher than the average tax bill in 2009, or an increase of 13.6 percent.

Vashon's was one of only three districts that saw its property tax rate climb. Of the 20 school districts in the county, 17 saw a decline in property taxes, the county assessor's office reports.

Hara, who plans to visit Vashon on March 9 to discuss the Island's property tax situation, said Vashon's climb "is one of the higher increases in the county this year." He said the increase is due to a couple of things: The Island's property values did not fall as much as in other parts of the county and the decision on voters' part to approve two levies in 2009.

"People on Vashon are quite proud of their schools and their parks," Hara said. "When you begin to look at the added taxes they've voted to put on themselves, it's obvious they've made some choices."

Vashon voters approved a Vashon Park District levy last year, which resulted in a 15-cent increase in the tax rate between 2009 and 2010. Voters also approved a capital technology levy last year, which added 35 cents to the tax rate, Hara said.

"It's an important statement that the citizens on Vashon have made — we want to support our schools and our parks," Hara said.

But Michael Soltman, superintendent of the Vashon Island School District, said Vashon voters are not, in fact, more generous than those in other taxing districts. Most school districts have voter-approved maintenance and operation levies, construction bonds and capital technology levies, he said.

The difference, he said, stems from the situation around Chautauqua Elementary School. Voters approved a $5 million bond to clean up the mold stemming from construction errors several years ago. After the school district obtained a $2 million settlement from the construction company three years ago, it used that money to reduce the outstanding bond debt, which lowered the amount voters had to pay for two years, he said.

Homeowners are now paying off that bond at the rate they initially agreed to — $1.05 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or a 40-cent increase over what they were paying last year, Soltman said. The bond is scheduled to retire in 2012.

"I don't think there's a fundamental difference between what we're doing and what other districts are doing," Soltman said. "But it looks like an increase because of the tax relief from a couple of years ago."

Even so, some Islanders said the climb in property taxes will be hard for them.

Vickie Mercer, 60, a retiree on a fixed income, said the nearly $700 increase in her property taxes marks the biggest jump in her 30 years as an Islander. Mercer, who owns a home on Vashon with her husband Gary, said she was frustrated to see the increase.

"At this juncture in our lives, we have to think about what we can support financially," she said.

The school district is slated to put a $47 million bond measure before voters in November. The latest increase in property taxes will likely affect their vote, she said, "because we can't afford any more taxes."

Eli Stahl, a father of three school-age children, said he, too, saw a dramatic increase in his taxes; they climbed 15 percent on his modest home at Vashon Cohousing. But he said he's willing to pay those taxes as long as he clearly understands what they're paying for and why Islanders have seen an increase.

"I wish they'd explain it better," he said, adding that he thought the levies voters approved last year would have very little impact on the 2010 tax rate.

The pressure on property taxes, he added, underscores the need for tax reform in Washington, one of the few states without an income tax.

"We have the most regressive system out there," he said.

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