Common Threads Northwest spoke with John Romaker, who is running for Whatcom County Assessor.
CTNW: Why are running for election of this office and why do you believe that you are qualified for it?
John Romaker: Well I have three points I'd like to make: first is my experience. I've been 28-years plus as chief deputy assessor for Whatcom County. Pretty much most of the time the current assessor, Willnauer, has been in the office; I've been his deputy. It's that experience, plus prior to my time here in Whatcom County, I was senior commercial industrial appraiser for a large metropolitan in the Midwest—Toledo, Ohio was the county seat in Lucas County, Ohio. Prior to that, I had several years working for a firm that did assessment work by contract; I worked assessment jobs in Ohio and in North Carolina. So comprehensively—35-years of work up-close to the elected officials as well for most of that time—I worked specifically in the field of property assessment for taxation purposes. So, I think my experience is probably number one.
Number two: just being in the county courthouse I have developed relationships with other elected officials—not just inside the courthouse or inside county government the enterprise, but also with other municipalities. As well, the employees within the county's enterprise and their respective unions. I've developed good, solid working relationships, and can present a professional and experienced voice representing the office of the assessor as it interacts with those other agencies in county government.
My third point is that I have good interpersonal skills with the public. The role of the assessor is often—maybe this is our own internal perspective here—that’s needed because it's a direct connection to citizenry, as far as the impact of taxation. They get an envelope in the mail; it seems very personal in that moment because it does address their own possession, their property. There are two numbers that are related to that: one is the assessed value, which is the role of the assessor, and the other is the tax bill, and there's often that direct connection between the two. We are the first point of contact for them with [their] county government to address that, is through the assessor. Having those skills, being a good effective communicator, and being able to share what it is that the assessor's office affects. Affects them with the valuation or distribution of value, tax burden via that distribution, but also to communicate what the tax bill is comprised of. Whatcom County only represents, as county government, the general fund is about 16 percent of the tax bill, but it's the office of county assessor that's the front line in explaining that. I believe those three things are probably the foundation for why I'm pursuing this now.
CTNW: You partially touched on it, but what's your experience with being a manager, and as far as having and managing employees?
John: So, the office right now is 30 [employees] in total and in the entirety of my time in Whatcom County, coming up on 29-years here, I have had under my immediate supervision a staff of 13 residential and commercial property appraisers. Additionally, I have duties to stand-in in the role of assessor when he's absent. I'm not sure if that's directly related to staff supervision, but additional duties there as well. And then also kind of the general operational or coordinated roles throughout the entire department. I didn't explain that out of the 30 staff we have, I believe it's five who are unrepresented employees and the remainder are under union representation.
CTNW: What is your interpretation or understanding for what the job of the county assessor is?
John: Well principally, it's to assure equity in the burden of taxation. In Washington we benefit from having a property tax structure that's key to the market value of property—real property. Personal property is slightly different, it's original basis cost less depreciation over time. But largely what people are interested in is that real property component. It's the role of the assessor to determine over time how markets affect those valuations, so that as one area may increase in value but another area or even individual property be affected by external forces or deterioration on any number of appraisal-related effects, but how that interpretation of market and that effect on that property is where we establish the assessed value. Fairness is achieved through our mechanism of taxation by assuring that equity between properties is in place.
CTNW: So other than the website, what's your overall assessment of the current job that the assessor has done?
John: We've had a lot of change over the past three decades. We had an antiquated computer system. When I arrived in early 1991, we had several computer terminals that were tied to a mid-range central computer system with very limited capability on the assessment side. Granted, not that computers weren’t new in that day, but there's been a lot of advances, in how computers are utilized.
Over the course of time that I've been there, we have advanced from a pretty primitive system to—throughout 2009 to 2010 we installed a new system for the first time in 26-years. It was a new system that is shared between the assessment and the treasury sides to coordinate those systems; so that the work the assessor does is transparent for the the treasury side, and to some degree back to the assessor's side as well. So that's our major implementation.
Since then in 2010, we additionally added—as a platform on top of that computer system—we've since then added mobile field devices, basically iPads, to put in the hands of the appraisers as they go out to do their inspections. Prior to that everything was done by paper and that meant a whole lot of paper moving through the office. On any given year we do 17—18,000 properties just in valuation and inspection. But many more records are handled beyond that, so having that device in the field gives them real-time access to changes to property characteristic data, and vice versa, the system shares back the change that they make in the field. So that was another very big implementation.
What we have on the immediate horizon here is a vast improvement and expansion of GIS (Geographic Information Systems). It's a graphical map-based representation of property, and how that interrelates to what we think on the assessor's side is a very fundamental structure within that: which is property data, map data, and property characteristic data. That is about to be released and will be a huge advancement. In many ways, it's going to affect the public more than anything else because it's going to be an advancement in how that [information is] delivered to the public through the website.
CTNW: So essentially, you can go online, look on a map and click it and that'll give you all the information you want?
John: Exactly. Anyone that's even—Skagit County, some of the other regional counties, if you have any experience you can see that we've drifted quite far behind. I don't speak on behalf of the assessor's office here, but I know that it's not a result of inaction or anything from the assessor's office. It's a county-wide—in fact there are stakeholders that go beyond just the county enterprise to do that. But yeah, we're about to release that as well.
CTNW: So, you believe that the assessor's job, that what they’ve been doing is good, that they've been improving and continue to improve are continuing to improve, and your intent is to continue that course?
John: Yes. There are a couple of areas we can still grow and in terms of how we appraise property or the valuation. We have industry standard tools that we use, especially with this new software platform that we have. However, that's an area too, just like computers or cell phones or anything else, it's constantly advancing. So, we want to catch up and stay with current technology there. It has less to do with screens and devices, it has more to do with the application of science to show equity among properties, how valuations are equitably distributed, and how we analyze that. That's an area I see [where] we need additional advancement, and I'm looking forward to that.
CTNW: What do you believe is the responsibility of the assessor in communicating with the county council and the county executive as far as regulation and policy as to how it will affect revenues or the property tax base?
John: The role I see of the county assessor is to inform. The assessor is not part of the legislative [body]— we don't determine ordinances; we don't determine state law. Although we do through our state organization, the 39 county assessors do meet and gather information about issues that need to be addressed through legislative change, so we do that element as well. I would not be stating that accurately if I didn't point that out. But as far as the local policy making through the execution of planning or through the creation or adoption or elimination of existing ordinance, the assessor can inform about what potential tax shift there might be. If you diminish value of property from some external cause, whether that's a down-zoning of property—I don't want to isolate anyone, but it's really all influences that we have to examine. When we can see that in the horizon, based on what's proposed as change to law or change to ordinance, is to just simply inform what that consequence will be.
CTNW: So, you would have a sense of responsibility to reach out to them, rather than waiting for them to come to you to let them know if they're considering changes?
John: Yes. I feel it's all part of—the word in government these days—is transparency. And it's not just transparency to the public, but it's the public through its officials who they've elected into office. So that transparency is shared across those networks as well.
CTNW: The same question is for the state legislature, because a lot of what happens on our property tax bills is reflected from policies that happen at the state legislature.
John: It is true that the assessor, as an individual, has access to representatives and to senators both to directly communicate those kinds of issues. But those are rarely exercised because we attempt--wherever possible—I say "we," collectively the assessors from 39 counties—to the extent possible try to collect these ideas and these initiatives and promote them through our organization. So 1WSACA is the acronym for it, its Washington State Association of County Assessors; we meet annually for just that group's business meetings, but throughout the year we're constantly communicating changes like that. And then as a result of that, then the umbrella organization that WSACA is under is 2WACO, Washington Association of County Officials that includes the auditor, the treasurer, the sheriff, prosecutor, and coroner, I believe. So that within our organization on any given year we may have 3 or 4 measures. We might have ideas for a dozen or more, but we have to whittle that down to just a workable, highest-return or highest-valued targets that we want to go for; because to go for more simply isn't going to make it through the next screen, the next filter, which is WACO. Then WACO digests that information wherever possible if they can see a relationship between the assessors and the treasurers, or the assessors and auditor, or treasurer and auditor. They look for a joint effort there, and then those will get elevated up. In addition to that we'll join through those organizations with the Department of Revenue to provide additional insight and revenue impacts, that sort of thing, in order to then get the ear of the legislature and hopefully get something through.
CTNW: So essentially, staying involved with these different organizations who report to (WSACA) who reports to the state legislative with their recommendation.
John: So WSACA reports to WACO; WACO then reports to the legislature.
CTNW: I guess that's what I meant. You've got this tiered system here, but eventually it floats up to the top.
John: And I give the answer that way because it's not for lack of desire or initiative on the assessors. It's that in order to follow accepted practice, to add legitimacy to the effort, you want to join as many assessors or as many umbrella groups within your umbrella organization—WACO in our case—in order to drive the issue forward, and get it the attention it needs when there's hundreds and hundreds of bills that are floating around at any given time.
CTNW: The assessor, beyond from a real estate perspective, needs to take a lot of things into consideration. What's your experience with working with that type of database, and keeping that type of a database updated?
John: I say this, it's going to sound maybe a little flippant, I don't mean it that way, but the assessor in the effort to appraise and assess property need to take all things into consideration. Anything that can affect property valuation. Although I will add—the one benefit the assessor enjoys is that we're always looking backwards. We look at evidence, empirical evidence, that's demonstrated in the marketplace. I'll give an example, one that will be well known to many in Whatcom County because it's not in the too distant past: but when the Hirst decision came down and how that affected the ability to develop property—at least in the short term—and the implications on value, which in turn the value being the basis of taxation, was something that needed attention. In that moment, we didn't get to enjoy looking back 2-3 years to see what market evidence was—it was real-time happening. So that's not the typical event, but it's something that we will be reactive to as well.
CTNW: Would you agree that from a real estate perspective versus an assessor’s perspective, real estate quite often is looking for the highest value, whereas the assessor is looking for base value and which do you think is best? Taking into consideration affordability, because property taxes in many cases are becoming as much as the mortgage payment.
John: This is going to be a bit of a long answer and I apologize for that in advance, but it does require breaking it into kind of component parts. I think I heard the core of two questions in there. The first is the different perspective on value is approached from the assessor versus someone marketing real property. Obviously in a contract arrangement between an agent and a represented client, there's going to be a specific motivation to try to get the greatest return from the sale. And the assessor instead—and this is where it gets a little wonky here—is because we have a target valuation under law in Washington that says market value. But the reality is we've got in any given year close to 20,000 properties that we're inspecting and revaluing parcel to parcel, and the whole of some 113,000 parcels that we need to examine the valuation of and revalue annually. To do that, and to hit 100-percent market value on every one of those properties is simply, flatly not achievable.
The other half of that, though, is that the assessor is party to any appeal or any challenge to valuation. The taxpayer has a right to that process, and we are charged to demonstrate support for the value that we have concluded for that property. When you have one half of that line in the bell curve above market value, you're going to have thousands of appeals. So, when people look at the assessed value, they often scratch their head and say: "well gee, I'll take that," because it's a percentage of the full market value, what they think might be market value for that property. But, again, the effort is trying to close that gap. When I talked about equity earlier, what I'm talking about is how to assure that the greatest number of properties are fairly represented within that narrow band.
CTNW: The perspective that the question comes from is that realtors always look to sell at the highest and best use for the seller. That's not necessarily the role of the assessor. The assessor isn't going to look at every piece of property at what its highest and best use is, the assessor may look at what the property is currently being used for. Because you can have how many parcels in a neighborhood, and some people are using their parcel for its highest and best use, and others may not, they might be totally undeveloped.
John: Specifically, I can answer it this way: the assessor can't look at prospective uses for property. It must be legally permissible under zoning and other land use law. It needs to be economically feasible. It also must be a likely use. You know, zoning may permit development for commercial use, say, maybe along a freeway interchange or something like that. But if the economic force isn't there yet to initiate development of that property, then we're just looking at a prospective use. So, it’s our duty to take great care when we do that, and we [do not assess on potential] forward prospective uses.
CTNW: Currently the properties are being reassessed about once every two years. Is that something you want to continue? Do you think it should be happening more frequently or less frequently? It used to be once every four years, then they upped it to once every two years.
John: Until 2010, we had been on a quadrennial revaluation cycle. Every year, the assessor must have a revaluation plan approved by the Department of Revenue, and it needs to meet statutory requirements for meeting those conditions. Prior to 2010, we had 39 doing it in various cycles. Whatcom County was one of the counties still doing every four–year inspection and revaluation, where only one-quarter of the county, each year, over a circular pattern, where property inspections would take place and revaluation occurred. However, that's not where we are today. In 2010, we converted to an inspection cycle where properties are inspected for valuation purposes once every six years, and annually every year, we're revaluing all properties. Not every property sees a change in value, but that's because the analysis we performed didn't indicate that a value change was required.
CTNW: So basically, you do a physical inspection once every six years, but each property is revalued annually?
John: Annually, yes. And I [believe this] question was in there too: do I see any initiative to change that? No. I think that works. The information we get about change to property through the building permit process, through other evidence, basically keeps us well informed enough to know. And by the way, a piece I left out of that is: not only do we inspect every six years, once a zone of one sixth of the county, but in cycles between that, all property gets evaluated specifically one parcel at a time based on a building permit. So if there's any indication that change has occurred, then instead of just doing a market analysis against assessed value–sort of change, we actually go out and physically inspect that property and add any features or remove any features that have been demolished, that sort of thing.
CTNW: If you were to be elected to be the assessor, what do you believe is the proper leadership style? What does the office need and how could you fulfill that?
John: This is not me speaking on behalf of the office, this is purely my perspective here, but my training in college, my college education and a brief career shortly after college was in newspaper journalism. I don't profess to be any great writer or any great orator but—I can see that we become so familiar with the subject matter that we talk in rather casual terms to the layperson. The customer comes into the counter, they need an explanation about this or that, and I can see at times it's a race to keep up with the jargon we're throwing. I use this as an example; that transparency means access to information, but that information [needs to be] understandable and comprehensible. Sometimes it's more than just the information, it's how you communicate that information. To me that's a personal direction or it's what I hope to achieve if I'm elected.
CTNW: The current status, at least from my perspective, has been that the current assessor has made himself readily available to go out and talk to the public about issues that they see are going to affect people's property taxes, and/or after the fact when everyone becomes extremely upset. Will you continue in to do that? Do you think that that's an important role of the assessor to make themselves available to go out to groups and speak publicly?
John: Absolutely, I do. I think it's not just good public service, I look at it as an obligation or a duty. Again, when we talk about transparency, it's not just enough not to shield government from the public's eye, but it's to effectively share and communicate that. [That] doesn't always come in the form where the customer comes to you and says: "I have an issue; will you help me?" Sometimes they don't know that they need help until you've communicated that [to them].
CTNW: So, on that same avenue that it's difficult for people to know what's coming down the pike, how can that be dealt with so that everybody knows, such as big impacts like the McCleary decision, are coming down? How changes will affect your property taxes at, such as land use changes at Cherry Point? Changes in the zoning affect property taxes: is it going to affect everybody the same? How do you think it should be done; communicate to the people on how important this is?
John: I know that it is not only the duty of the assessor to communicate information about work performed, but it is a duty of the assessor to inform about prospective change when that can be identified. I'll qualify that though: it's not the duty of the assessor to direct or to influence the outcome. It's the public's choice and it's their elected officials' duty to perform that. We're not in that branch of government. But when the assessor can identify what the implication will be—and I'll use another example of tax shift, is every time there is a particular group, or class of property, or taxpayer, or a select subset of the population of all property that's being assessed, is treated in a different way. Then it's not that revenue—let's say it's an exemption of tax, or it's a diminishment of value that has the effect of a reduction of tax—it's not that the tax is going away. That same amount of tax revenue is still going to be collected because that's determined by the budget process and by voter-elected measures, it's just that that tax that's now offset from this group, it's going to be paid by somebody else. So that's the message that the assessor can deliver is what that implication will be. And then let the policy makers and the decision makers, and the public, make that choice.
CTNW: The Hirst decision still has great potential to affect properties depending on what the Department of Ecology decides. How receptive should the assessor's office be to people's properties being immediately reassessed, or that dramatic of a change in their use of the property?
John: Well it is the responsibility of the assessor—especially now that we have a periodic revaluation of property on an annual basis—is to examine all the influences on that. As I was describing in an earlier answer, the obvious one is the market change that's identifiable by experience, by evidence. But in the case of change that is likely to affect property valuation, and because property valuations are set in year one—property value that became effective for assessment on noon, January 1st of 2019—isn't even collected in property tax until 2020. And so, the weight of that shift can be something—you don’t know, if you can't forecast it somewhat, there's going to be a consequence to that. So, to the extent possible we'll identify those issues and address them. It's not always achievable. It's not achievable to perfection. But we'll certainly make every effort to identify those and give them the appropriate weight and attention.
CTNW: Getting back to the actual tax assessment: we have programs for seniors and it's important that they are not taxed out of their homes, but again, for every different program, which then shifts the tax burden out to neighboring properties; shifting the tax burden further out the chain. Do you think that is a good or a bad thing based on where we're at with affordability? Understanding that affordability is not the same as subsidized, and one is subsidized and the other affects affordability.
John: To give one example of that particular program—and that program actually is several kind of programs under the same umbrella: senior exemption based on income qualification, disabled persons exemption based on income qualification, and disabled veterans qualification under the program—and I'm using that income threshold as a basis for this answer. In this legislative session there was Senate Bill 5160 that passed. For the first time up to this change, it had been a periodic review of those caps for income. We have a structure that breaks it down into three levels or three ceilings of income in order to qualify. I'll just use one for an example to keep it short. The upper threshold is $40,000 or it has been to this point. What [we have now] is, in Washington, one law affecting all areas in the state. [There are] 39 counties and a good many of those, [such as] Pend Oreille or Ferry County, where the median income for households is $40,000 can qualify a very large percentage of their population. Then you look at [counties like] King and Thurston and Pierce and Whatcom and some of these other Puget Sound counties where the cost of living is so high and yes incomes are higher naturally, but that relationship between income and the cost for housing is disproportionate. So, you have very few that qualify or relatively speaking you have fewer that qualify. This measure, legislation 5160, was to introduce—and I should add, when I talked earlier about WSACA and the assessor’s organization through WACO and all that, this was a very big initiative for the counties to address--clearly when you look at King County, they're the biggest gainer from this kind of change that I'm going to describe here versus some of the other counties, but in order to get all of the effective weight of the assessors organization behind it and get this promoted to get attention before the legislature, it took coordination from all of those counties. The effect of which is it is now graduated and reviewed based on income threshold for [each individual] county, [not an overall state threshold].
CTNW: So, each one is looked at individually based on median income?
John: Yes, and so in Whatcom County, just again as a very narrow piece to use for example: 2018 and earlier—it takes effect in July of 2019 here--this change—but it will raise that income ceiling above $40,000. Not much, but still it's a mechanism.
CTNW: We have a median of about $54,000, but we have an average that's probably closer to about $42,000.
John: And so, again, it's not meant to bring the average person into exemption. I speak like I'm responsible for the legislation—I don't mean it that way. What I mean is the effect of the tax relief is meant to catch those at the bottom economic tier. But because the costs keep rising and incomes aren't matching that, that disparity needed attention. So now there is in place a mechanism that is intended to calibrate that, so that, over time, as that change keeps occurring, it doesn't require continually going back to the legislature and arguing a new case for why the amount should increase.
CTNW: The question was more focused on these types of policies and how they affect tax shifting, and when we're dealing with affordability, do you agree or disagree with these taxing policies, understanding that affordability is not the same as subsidized, and how this will affect affordability. It does affect affordability when you have, say, you're in a neighborhood and maybe there's a higher percentage of senior citizens there who are on fixed incomes who are going to meet that threshold, and they're going to all qualify for the exemptions. And then all those properties, even though they're just as valuable as the person next door to them, who essentially is still gainfully employed but doesn't meet that threshold. You've got different neighborhoods and different areas and you've got all this tax shifting going on and, yes, you have got to keep track of it all, but the question is do you agree or disagree with the policy?
John: It's not a policy choice for the assessor to change. And I can say, and this is to show relationship here: the number of participants in Whatcom County's senior, disabled and veteran's relief program is under 3,000; and for a population of 113,000 parcels, it represents a very small component part. And the amount of relief—it's not like in all those cases qualifying for the exemption program is 100 percent of relief of tax. Sometimes it's just a very incremental adjustment. So, it's overall weight of impact in that tax shift is not that significant. That doesn't mean it doesn't need our attention, and every time change is applied, we should be examining that. Is this the thing our society wants to do here? And, again, I support the concept, but its expansion is something we need to look at very carefully and be well informed as to what that consequence is going to be.
CTNW: Currently Bellingham is going to be going through quite a bit of changes with the waterfront redevelopment, and a quite a few new multi-family units that are coming online. Is that going to be a priority to get these Bellingham properties reassessed for their share of property taxes, based on increased property value due to the number of new properties? You've got the waterfront going on and the plans are to put in a lot of condos, and in Bellingham right now there's a lot of brand-new multi-family units that are sprouting up all over the place. We've had a lot of growth in density, which again creates another shift in taxes because of valuations. Do you think that should be a priority to go out there and get these areas reassessed so that we're having proper equity, understanding that some of these multi-family units have received incentive-exemptions?
John: If the law permits the exemption and the city of Bellingham adopts the use of the exemption, not to sidestep the answer here, but the assessor doesn't have much role in that—other than, again, to inform what that tax shift will be. So, I do understand and accept the duty to be an agent to inform what that consequence will be, but in terms of influencing whether it's chosen, is not.
CTNW: The question is whether or not you would find that it should be a priority to get out there and look at the reassessment in order to ensure that the proper amount of taxes are coming in for the level of increased services that will be needed.
John: Yes, I do. And not to expand the question here, but another one we hear is that change of development form, you know, to multi-family in Bellingham's core and even now expanding outside of what most would identify as the core—"is that having an external influence on other property value?” I don't have an answer for that here today, but I do know it is getting attention and it will be a topic for the near future just because that seems to be the direction given the city's objective to contain growth toward infill, partially constrained by the UGA, and where the growth can occur. There are so many complicating elements to that, but the question is starting to arise now: is this going to affect other property value in the long term?
CTNW: So, is there anything that we didn't ask you that you would like to share?
John: I love my home, and I don't mean the four walls that I live in, but I love Whatcom County. I love the region. I also know that I'm not alone in that, and part of our growing pains is from that same perspective, caused in large part by that same perspective. My wife and I have every intention to live out the rest of our years here in Whatcom County.
You can find out more about John Romaker and his campaign at votejohnromaker.com.