Assessor’s error crimps Parks budget

A mistake by the King County Assessor’s Office let the Vashon Park District collect about $186,000 more in property taxes in 2022 than it was legally entitled to.

The district plans to reduce its levies slightly in each of the next three years to effectively pay back island taxpayers for the overpayment.

What’s more, the discovery of the error last month also caused the Assessor’s Office to recalculate the Parks District’s allowable levy for 2023 — this time basing it on corrected numbers for 2022.

The total impact of the recalculation and repayment on the district’s 2023 finances is significant.

A routine audit of the Assessor’s levy practices by the state Department of Revenue uncovered the mistake last month, as the Park District was nearing a Nov. 30 deadline to adopt next year’s levy and budget.

Before the error was found, the Assessor’s Office had informed the district that it could increase its levy collections from $1.75 million in 2022 to $1.78 million next year.

Instead, the 2023 levy that parks commissioners adopted on Nov. 22 is now $1.53 million — about $250,000, or 14 percent, less.

The correction will trim the 2023 property tax bill for the owner of a $1 million home by about $50.

Al Dams and Linda Wilder, both in the Assessor’s office, said that the error in setting VPD’s taxation was fully the fault of their office, and one of a handful of other errors affecting various taxing districts that turned up in the Department of Revenue audit.

“We apologize,” said Dams, detailing that the assessor’s office calculates and manages levy collection for more than 500 taxing districts throughout the county. “We do make mistakes, but we get them corrected when we do.”

At a VPD board meeting, Elaine Ott, executive director of Vashon Park District, described the impact of the snafu as one that would take a toll on VPD’s 2023 programming.

A planned hire for a recreational programming assistant, she said, would likely be put on hold, and the district would also likely need to delay work on some small capital projects next year.

The windfall that wasn’t

To understand the complex calculations that led to the Assessor’s over-levy on behalf of VPD, it’s necessary to look back to February of this year, when VPD announced a windfall — that VPD had been informed by the Assessor’s Office that it could collect $210,00 more in property taxes than it had anticipated when commissioners adopted the district’s 2022 levy in November of 2021.

At the time, VPD explained the windfall as an unexpected consequence of a bill the Legislature passed in 2021 to protect VPD from potential future funding cuts.

A few months earlier, the district’s 2021 levy had been trimmed by about 10 percent below what it otherwise could have legally collected. The reason: The cumulative rates of about 15 or 20 levies collected on Vashon — including the levies of the Fire District, Health Care District and Park District — exceeded a state limit of $5.90 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Because the law at that time gave the park district the lowest priority, its levy was the one cut, or “pro-rationed.”

The bill the Legislature approved removed the district from the $5.90 calculations through 2026. But last December, the Assessor’s Office told the park district the legislation did more than that.

The park district had assumed its 2022 levy would be based on its 2021 levy before pro-rationing and could increase by 1 percent above that in accordance with state law. That would have resulted in a 2022 levy rate of about 39.6 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

But the Assessor’s Office said the new law allowed the district to return to its 2020 levy rate of 45 cents. That’s what the district did.

Only last month did the Assessor and the district learn that was wrong.

Now, Ott-Rocheford looks back on the situation with some degree of an “I told you so” shrug.

“I was very surprised by this last year, as I assumed we would be subject to the 1% limit as if we had not been pro-rationed,” Ott-Rocheford told commissioners at a board meeting last month. “Turns out I was correct, but King County assured me that they were correct.”

The park district must win voter approval next year for a new levy to continue to collect property taxes after 2023. Big increases in property values have pushed its 2023 levy rate down to about 30.5 cents.

Five-year budget projections prepared by the district indicate it is considering asking voters to approve a 45-cent levy for 2024.