By Marcy Stamper
The assessed value of taxable property—mainly houses and cabins, but also shops and outbuildings—destroyed in the Carlton Complex wildfire is almost $28 million, according to Okanogan County Assessor Scott Furman, whose office has been processing a dozen destroyed-property forms a day.
That total does not yet include homes burned in the Rising Eagle Road Fire or all damage to orchards and other agricultural properties.
Depending on the extent of the loss of value, property owners will get a refund check (if total property tax due after the loss is less than what was paid in the first half of the year) or a reduced bill for second-half taxes. The tax reduction is based on the amount of value lost and the number of days remaining in the year after the destruction occurred.
As of last week, the assessor counted 230 single-family homes, 53 cabins, 94 shops and detached garages, and 152 outbuildings that had been destroyed, on a total of 353 tax parcels. There are also losses to personal property, such as golf carts and mowers at Alta Lake, said Furman.
While the $28 million decrease in the county’s assessed value is considerable, it is a small percentage of the $4 billion in assessed value recorded this year before the fire, said Furman. Even if the total losses in destroyed property reach $40 million, that would be only 1 percent of the county’s total tax base.
County appraisers started calculating property damage shortly after it occurred, since their numbers were used for the county’s application for a disaster declaration from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The appraisers used field devices to bring up photos and details of the houses and other structures, since often all that remains is a building foundation. One homeowner described his property as “eradicated” on his destroyed-property form, said Furman. Appraisers have visited the majority of the destroyed properties, said Furman.
The loss in value means the county will collect less property tax this year, but taxing districts such as fire districts, libraries and hospitals have the option of running an administrative refund levy in 2015, according to Okanogan County Treasurer Leah Mc Cormack.
As opposed to voter-approved levies (such as a school district maintenance and operations levy, where a specific total is divvied up among all taxpayers), these junior taxing districts collect a certain dollar amount per $1,000 valuation. Junior taxing districts are permitted to increase the amount they collect, up to a statutory maximum, in the year following a loss. Most are not at the maximum levy rate—for example, the county collects $1.44 per $1,000 valuation for its current expense fund, but is permitted to levy up to $1.80, said Mc Cormack.
For voter-approved levies, on the other hand, the district must still collect the same total, so any necessary increase in the levy rate will be spread out among all taxpayers. “It will affect the levy rates, but it’s not as drastic as it could be,” said Furman. Everyone will pay a little more, but increases will be less than $1 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, he said.
Nineteen of the county’s 64 taxing districts were affected by the wildfires. Mc Cormack predicted that the amount the county loses in its current expense and road funds would be less than $100,000.
Beyond the immediate loss in property value and the blows to the tourist economy, Mc Cormack said she is anticipating a continued trickle-down effect from the fires, although it is too soon to make predictions. Mc Cormack said she will probably use lower sales-tax receipts in her projections for next year, but noted that there will also be new building permits, purchases and jobs as people start to rebuild.
“There will definitely be an impact, but it will hit both sides. We can’t be sure of the net effect,” said Mc Cormack.
Calculating the loss
Ultimately the assessor will devise a formula to adjust land values in the areas affected by the fire. Furman has contacted counties in Colorado that suffered extensive fire losses and will also consult with people in real estate to understand the impact on property values. It is too early to determine the effect of the wildfire on market value of housing since there have been no real estate sales since the fire, said Furman.
Even properties that were not damaged may be eligible for a reduction in taxable value if they are in an area declared a disaster by the governor or county commissioners. These reductions may apply if the true market value has been reduced by more than 20 percent because of negative local economic conditions, according to the Washington Department of Revenue.
The destroyed property form and related information are available on the assessor’s website at www.okanogancounty.org/Assessor. The form must be filed within three years of the loss. The assessor’s office is first revising assessed values for those property owners who have submitted paperwork, but once those are done they will start reappraisals for properties for which they have not received the form.