Why a building in tax arrears is newsworthy | Editorial

A letter writer in this week’s issue suggests The Beachcomber should not have written a news story about the Sheffield Building’s property tax problem. She wonders if it means we’ll soon report on the financial struggles of a host of other Island property owners.

Our coverage of the Sheffield Building does not, in fact, suggest a new chapter has arrived at The Beachcomber. But her questions do warrant answers. Here’s our thinking.

Owners of commercial buildings throughout the region are no doubt struggling to pay their mortgages — in part, because of the nature of commercial loans. They’re often 10-year notes with balloon payments, instead of the 30-year mortgages most homeowners are familiar with. Refinancing is hard to come by these days — making these 10-year notes, as they come due, problematic.

Indeed, we at The Beachcomber learned last week that an office building on Vashon is in that very situation after a letter from a commercial bank noting it was in default was posted on the building’s main entrance — for all to read.

We didn’t report on it, however. The reason: Until there’s an actual default, the situation between this owner and his commercial lender is largely a private matter. It’s a sign of the times, for sure. But it’s not necessarily an issue of civic import.

Tax payments, however, are a different matter. Property taxes fund our schools, our fire department, our park district — indeed, virtually every part of local, regional and state government in Washington, a state without an income tax.

There’s another reason the Sheffield Building’s status is newsworthy. It’s owned by Vashon College, a nonprofit that has sought — and received — considerable press attention over the years. What’s more, the building was purchased by way of a complex transaction involving another nonprofit, the Vashon Rotary Foundation.

All of these issues — the role that property taxes play in funding government services, the role of this particular building in our civic life — combined to make this a news story in our opinion. Some will disagree, of course. And that, too, is how it should be.


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