Reason to Worry As County Taxes Climb Higher

The prospect of having to pay more and more property tax every year terrifies me.

Vashon property values are soaring, in part because in the post-pandemic world many companies are deciding to maintain permanent telework — and so their work-at-home employees are realizing they can live somewhere really nice instead of in a more stressful urban environment. We’ve all seen the result in the local market: houses snapped up in a few days for well over the asking price. It must be a great time to be a realtor.

But as a result of all this, our property assessment values just went up by almost 20% — and this follows a 12.7% increase we were hit with in 2017-18. What’s more, the tax levy rate between 2020 and 2021 also increased, from $11.59 to $12.4 per thousand dollars of assessed value.

This means that every year that the assessment and tax rate go up, King County reaps ever-increasing revenue from property owners. One would think that, if the county had a set budget that it decided it needed to raise, and that didn’t change between consecutive years, then the tax rate should actually go down as assessment values go up (if I’m hit with an $8,000 tax bill in year one, and my assessment value goes up in year two, then the tax rate required to raise $8,000 from me in the second year should be lower).

A quick search finds that consecutive King County budgets (which are adopted for two years) have gone up every time, at least as far back as 2013: the 2013/14 budget was $7.6 billion, and this increased every biennial cycle to the current level (for 2021/22) of $12.59 billion. Property taxes make up a significant part of the revenue, though much of this goes to fund something other than county operations per se (e.g. 57% of property tax goes to fund schools). It is very tempting to believe that, instead of setting a budget and deciding how to finance it, the county simply hauls in more and more money from property owners and goes on a spending spree. Needless to say, politicians and bureaucrats will always find ways to spend money if it’s handed to them.

Although there is supposed to be a 1% limit on the yearly increase in property taxes, this can be — and has been — over-ridden by voter-approved tax measures. I’m sure a lot of the people who cheerfully vote for these new taxes don’t own homes and thus aren’t having to pay ever-increasing percentages of their income in property tax.

It’s true that the county allows those 62 and older to apply for an exemption (and thus pay a lower rate, currently around 8%), but to do that one must have a gross annual income of not more than $58,423. That this is gross income strikes me as fundamentally unfair to many people; if you run, say, a small consulting business that takes in $60,000 a year but has expenses that amount to a big chunk of that, then you don’t qualify even though your net income is actually pretty low. Not to mention the fact that anyone under 62 is out of luck no matter what.

Like many on the island, I am on a limited and fixed retirement income, and the prospect of having to pay more and more property tax every year terrifies me. When taxes go up, our incomes don’t magically rise accordingly. Also like many residents, I’m not and never was wealthy; I worked hard all my life, was fiscally responsible, and saved money to afford a nice house on our lovely island.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who is afraid that King County is going to bleed us dry to the point where we can no longer afford to live here.

Phil Clapham is a retired whale biologist who lives on Maury Island and writes The Desert Island Bookworm, a regular column for The Beachcomber.