Tenure included innovations in assessing fire-damaged property

By Marcy Stamper

Scott Furman

In his 20 years as Okanogan County assessor, Scott Furman has computerized the property records and parcel listings, revalued hundreds of properties destroyed by wildfire and mudslides, and overseen an almost 70-percent increase in the number of taxable parcels.

Furman is retiring at the end of this year after five terms as assessor. Before being elected as assessor, he worked for 14 years as a commercial appraiser in the county assessor’s office.

“I’ll still be doing things — I’m just retiring from the county. I’m not one to sit around,” said Furman. “I’ve worked 35 years straight. The first thing I’m going to do is not do anything, and have no appointments — but I’m sure I can’t handle it.”

Still, Furman isn’t making any specific plans, although he’d like to travel — to every state in the Lower 48. He will stay in the county, where his family, including three grandchildren, live.

Furman’s office faced a formidable challenge four years ago — and again the following year — when hundreds of homes and 550,000 acres of land were destroyed in the Carlton Complex and Okanogan Complex fires.

Furman’s use of software to track the property revaluations was hailed by the software developer with its Public Sector Champions Award in 2015. The county’s appraisers used GIS mapping to identify properties, and then worked with software developer Thomson Reuters to code the damaged properties so they could be tracked separately, said Furman.

“[The Okanogan County assessor’s office] wasted no time jumping into action to make the lives of their constituents just a little easier after they lost everything. Appraisers immediately assessed the damage on the 4,800 affected parcels of real estate. Within a week they quickly drafted an initial damage assessment … They ensured that impacted citizens wouldn’t have to pay for anything they might’ve lost in the fire,” said Thomson Reuters in its recognition of Furman’s work.

Furman was later invited to write an article about the county’s approach to revaluing property. A cavalcade of natural disasters around the country, from wildfires to hurricanes to floods, sparked interest from other assessors trying to devise a fair system for adjusting the value on thousands of parcels over a wide area, said Furman.

“I got calls from assessors all over the U.S., asking, ‘How do you do this?’” he said. “Assessors are so used to appraisals based on sales. Then a natural disaster changes the landscape — how do you do it?” he said.

Furman’s article explained the county’s multi-step approach — for identifying affected properties and revaluing them, and then notifying property owners. These changes can have a profound effect on taxing districts, where bond rates are based on the pre-disaster value. For example, Pateros lost 30 to 40 percent of its value in just two days, said Furman.

With homes rebuilt and land in the shrub-steppe flourishing after the fires, many properties have rebounded to their previous value, and those numbers are beginning to be reflected in sales, said Furman. “But timbered parcels with black toothpicks will take forever to bounce back — they’re not selling for much,” he said.

Working with property owners who suffered such widespread destruction was hard on his staff, who knew people were in shock after losing their homes but still had an obligation to revalue properties, said Furman. “Everyone was trying to help — it was hard on everyone,” he said.

Furman, who lost his own home to an electrical fire two and a half years ago, can relate to these losses. Although his house has been rebuilt, “It’s a hell of a way to get a new house,” he said. When the fire at his house occurred in early January, they still had their Christmas tree up and lost many family heirlooms and photos.

Furman has overseen other changes in the office. Until they converted to a computerized system in 2000, county appraisers did all their appraisals on paper, he said. Real estate agents and private appraisers had to travel to the assessor’s office all the time to get the information they needed. “There used to be a lot more interaction with people, although some older folks still come in,” said Furman.

Although the number of parcels in the county has gone from 35,000 to 51,000, staff in the assessors office has decreased from 16 to 12, largely because of computerization, said Furman.

During his tenure, Furman has served as president of the Washington State Association of County Assessors and has testified in Olympia about property tax–related subjects.

The position of county assessor will be on the ballot this November. Candidate filing week is from May 14 to 18.