Issues change, but personal styles persist

Maybe the property tax system isn’t a high priority issue for the Port Orchard mayoral candidates to be debating during the campaign, but it does give observers a chance to see whether there is a meaningful difference in personal styles.

Mayors don’t determine property values for tax purposes or impose property taxes, so it could seem strange that assessed valuation of taxable property would be a campaign topic.

The Kitsap County Assessor’s Office has the duty to determine property values used in the property tax system, and there is a procedure for challenging his judgment.

Governing bodies of taxing districts determine the tax to be levied.

For a city, the mayor proposes a budget that recommends a certain tax, but the council decides what tax is imposed.

Appealing the Assessor’s valuation for a specific parcel of real estate involves the county’s Board of Equalization and the state’s Board of Tax Appeals.

Neither of these boards turns to the mayor of a city for advice or direction.

Despite the obvious separation between the role of a mayor and the roles of officials directly involved in assessing property values, the topic has entered the campaign debate.

From one perspective, it seems obvious why the topic would be raised.

Some Port Orchard taxpayers received notices of substantial increases in property value last year — followed by significant tax increases this year.

Some of these taxpayers certainly are interested in having a public debate about the property tax system in whatever venue may give them satisfaction.

Since the rise in assessed property values shifted part of the total tax burden to taxpayers in Port Orchard, there could be people who aren’t directly affected that are still interested in the impact on their community.

It is no surprise that people in politics would notice this situation and respond in some way.

There may be as many ways to approach the issue as there are people involved in the debate, but for now we have two candidates and two ways.

Voters can observe these two ways in an effort to evaluate the candidates’ styles, not necessarily to determine whether one is right and the other is wrong about the topic being debated.

Issues that will arise during the next term of office for Port Orchard’s mayor may be handled in the same style as each candidate now displays during this particular debate.

If one style seems more suited to resolving issues than the other, voters could consider which they would prefer.

For this particular topic involving property values, don’t expect a resolution prior to the election.

Current law places the duty on the Assessor to determine property values, then requires the two boards to presume that the Assessor is correct when considering an appeal.

Overcoming this presumption is what a taxpayer must do if any reduction in the assessed value is to be ordered by either board.

Unless the taxpayer can produce clear and convincing evidence that the Assessor is incorrect, the value determined by the Assessor stands.

Perhaps a lower standard of proof would be better, but it could make things worse if it’s easier for a board to substitute its judgment for the Assessor’s.

Consistency of treatment for all taxpayers seems more likely when the Assessor’s valuations stand unless shown to be clearly wrong.

If one group’s values are set by the Assessor and another’s by a board that readily substitutes its judgment for the Assessor’s, there may be less consistency in treatment of taxpayers.

Laying out the evidence, determining without rancor what has occurred, and choosing whether to push for any particular change in the property tax system could be within a mayor’s “job description.”

Lots of issues can come up during a mayor’s term that require persuasion of others, so even if this tax issue isn’t of great interest to some voters it’s worth watching how the candidates handle it.

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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