Matthes says small change to state law could settle property valuation dispute

Tim Matthes, who announced last week his candidacy for mayor of Port Orchard, believes modifying the wording of state laws relating to property tax valuations would go a long way toward resolving a controversy brewing between the city and the county.

Matthes, who chairs the county’s Board of Equalization — to which property owners appeal when they believe their property was assessed unfairly — said the problem lies in state standards that don’t provide enough leeway for overruling the county Assessor’s Office.

As currently written, he said, the applicable law assumes the assessor’s valuation to be correct unless the property owner can present “clear, cogent and convincing evidence” the rate was calculated incorrectly.

“Unfortunately,” Matthes said, “the ‘clear, cogent and convincing evidence’ standard makes it highly unlikely any taxpayer can prevail no matter what evidence they present. It is high time for that to change.”

Matthes suggests altering the wording to “a preponderance of evidence” — a much more attainable standard — and said he planned to meet with members of the 26th District legislative delegation to see how feasible doing so might be.

“This small change could make it immensely easier for taxpayers to present evidence and prove what they believe or know is a more accurate assessment of their property,” Matthes wrote in a press release sent on Monday. “The assessor and Board of Equalization then have the ability to look much more favorably at this evidence and make the necessary changes.”

Incumbent Mayor Lary Coppola announced earlier this month he had asked the city attorney to investigate the possibility of suing the county over what he believes are unrealistically high property tax valuations, which negatively impact Port Orchard businesses.

“Why are property tax re-assessments for commercial real estate in Port Orchard and South Kitsap totally unrealistic when compared to actual market value?” Coppola asked. “In many cases, properties have lost a large percentage of their value, yet they are being assessed as if they had actually gained in value, with increases of 50 percent or more not at all uncommon.

“In addition,” he said, “why are tax assessments based upon Comprehensive Plan designations — as opposed to actual zoning and use? This strikes me as patently unfair.”

Matthes, who also serves on the city’s Planning Commission — a post to which he was appointed by Coppola — characterized the mayor’s lawsuit threat as “political grandstanding benefiting no one.

“This negative leadership,” he said, “only sponsors dissension, division and contention between taxpayers. It pits friends against friends, neighbors against neighbors, business owners against business owners, residential property owners against commercial property owners, and all taxpayers against the Assessor’s Office and the Board of Equalization.”

“I find it ironic that Mr. Matthes accuses me of ‘political grandstanding,’” Coppola responded, “when that’s all his suggestion for changing the law appears ... to be. It takes much more than mere cheerleading as he has suggested to effect any changes in the law at the state level — much less laws involving property taxation.

“I firmly believe property should be taxed on its actual use,” he added, “not some arbitrary designation on a map. It’s a question of basic fairness.”

Coppola concluded, “Why (Matthes) would continue to passionately defend increased property taxation in the face of diminishing property values in a declining economy baffles me.”

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