Common Threads Northwest spoke with Rebecca Xczar, who is running for Whatcom County Assessor.
CTNW: Why are you running for election of this office, and why do you believe you are qualified for the job?
Rebecca Xczar: I am a Certified Residential Real Estate Appraiser. I am a third-generation real estate appraiser, and I am currently serving on the Ferndale City Council. When I heard the current assessor was not running for re-election, I realized I'm uniquely qualified because I have the professional experience and the elected official experience. To me, this is the best I have to offer to my community; to utilize all of my skills.
Qualifications: I've been on the Ferndale City Council. This is the end of my first term so it will be four years at the end of this year. I'm currently the Planning and Land Use Committee Chair. Before council I spent three years on the Ferndale Planning Commission, and for three years before that I was on the Ferndale Parks and Recreation Trails Advisory Board. I have a strong passion to serve my community. I'm currently the Council liaison to the Ferndale Planning Commission as well. I have a strong background in understanding zoning and zoning changes, and how those affect values, and how those affect everybody.
CTNW: What experience have you had with being a manager as far as having employees and managing employees?
Rebecca: I'm a small business owner. I have one part-time employee and I have for several years. I'm a very flexible boss, and my current employee mostly works from home. Many years ago, I used to manage a video store. I did that for several years so I've managed employees, wrote schedules, and all of the typical retail management–type things. I am also a mom, and I manage a household.
CTNW: What is your interpretation or understanding of what the job of the County Assessor is?
Rebecca: The main goal of the position, in my opinion, should be more outreach, and more public information. The website is honestly terrible. I use it daily for work and there's such a lack of linkages. I can't just go to a property and then link to a septic permit or link to a building permit. Whereas Skagit County upgraded 10 years ago or so, and theirs is beautiful, it links to all of these things. We need better information available, and I think more public outreach as far as how to find information, how that information impacts your property value, how your values are decided, and all the factors that go into those. The senior exemption program needs a little more public outreach. I think a lot of seniors just don't know about it or assume they wouldn't qualify for it, and I think that program is a great asset to our community. In addition to outreach and providing public information, the job is managing employees, managing the office, and reviewing the work done for accuracy and consistency.
CTNW: Other than the website itself, what is your overall assessment of the current job that the assessor has done?
Rebecca: I have heard there are some improvements to the website coming online this year, which is great. I think there needs to be increased communication with the County Council as far as the budget goes, because those improvements require money and there should have been a greater push for the increased funds to do those updates before now. I have heard that the Whatcom County Assessor's Office has lost a number of employees to Skagit County. There needs to be more management and more progressive options for employees, whether that be work-from-home options some days or more flexible scheduling, or that type of thing—finding better ways to keep everybody happy, keep everybody on the same page, and keep our employees. I've heard that the Skagit Assessors Office is more flexible with the employees and offers more options.
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 for the property tax base?
Rebecca: I think the Assessor should be very proactive on finding ways to provide education, provide information, and bring options for this decision [that] will change this for values for these people, or this type of property. The Assessor doesn't make policy decisions, but providing information is a great way to help support the policy makers.
CTNW: Then I have the same question for the state legislature, because a lot of what happens on our property tax bills is reflected from policies at the state legislature.
Rebecca: Similar [to last response]: being able to provide information. There is a State Association of County Assessors (WSACA), and collectively they do more on the state level for advocacy. They provide information and advocate for the needs of those offices and how it impacts the general public in each community.
CTNW: The Assessor, beyond from a real estate prospective, has to take a lot of things into consideration. What's your experience with working with that sort of a database, keeping that type of a database updated?
Rebecca: Technology is a huge part of that. I seems the office is still doing some things pen-and-paper. The way the Assessors Office calculates values is a mass appraisal or regression system. In my current professional work I don't use that system. It's a different format to evaluate properties, with the same principals. But it's not difficult once you have the right input to generate the right output.
CTNW: Would you agree that from a real estate perspective versus an Assessor's perspective, real estate quite often is looking for 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 a mortgage payment.
Rebecca: The Assessor is supposed to be valuing everything at market value, based on Washington law. Market value should be the same, based on the definition of market value, whether its for the Assessors Office or in the general market. Sometimes people are willing to pay more than market value in the real world, which can account for differences. The current Assessor has valued most properties considerably low for many years. If all properties were to be raised to actual market value at the same time, there wouldn't be much change to the tax because the tax collected is based on each property being a percentage of the whole. I'm not sure why the current Assessor has kept us so far below market value. Whatcom County has one of the lowest ratios of assessed value to sales value in the whole state, and is below the state Standard.
CTNW: And currently the properties are being reassessed once every two years. Is that something you want to have happen more frequently? Less frequently? It used to be it was once every four years, then they upped it to once every two years.
Rebecca: They're only physically inspected less but they are statistically re-evaluated every year. It would be difficult to physically inspect them more often with current staff levels. For a lot of properties, there aren't major changes over a six-year period. They do go out and re-evaluate anything that has building permits or additions or those types of things as they happen, so it does update the system. I don't think they need to be physically inspected more than they currently are just for cost savings, but they do need to be evaluated more efficiently yearly based on actual market trends and price increases.
CTNW: If you were to be elected to be the Assessor, what do believe is the proper leadership style? What does the office need and how could you fulfill that?
Rebecca: I'm a pretty easy going person, but I expect everybody to do their work. I'm a very hard worker. I believe in asking people their opinion of what would make their job better, and what are their ideas to improve [thing], and come up with internal solutions rather that come in and mandate "these are all my new changes". I don't think that's the way to do it. I feel "firm but flexible" is the best way to encourage people to efficiently work and enjoy their job.
CTNW: The current status—at least from my perspective—has been that the 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 everybody becomes extremely upset. It's very difficult for people to even know what's coming down the pike. How can that be dealt with better? To be dealt with so that everybody knows that, okay, the McCleary decision is coming down and that's going to affect your property taxes. Cherry Point—with the changes in the zoning and stuff—that's going to affect your property taxes. And it's going to affect everyone the same. How do you think that you should communicate with people, and how important is it?
Rebecca: I think it's very important. It's important to do outreach to all of the groups that are feasible. Whether it's the cities, County Council, and any individual interest group for the variety of potential zoning changes, local and state tax changes that could happen. I would try to put out there that I'm looking for opportunities to bring information for things that are coming down the line, to try to be more proactive than reactive. And then be ready when that doesn't happen.
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 re-assessed, or that dramatic of a change in their use of their property?
Rebecca: When Hirst was still being hashed out, I do see that the Assessor waited a little, hoping it would resolve itself rather than reassess right away. I do agree with trying to give it a little time to hopefully let things resolve, but yes, those properties should be given priority for being re-evaluated as soon as possible, once realizing that things aren't going to happen as quickly as we had hoped they would.
CTNW: Getting back to the actual tax assessment: and then when we have programs for, like, the seniors. It's important that people aren't 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 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.
Rebecca: In general, I think it's great to have the programs available to those who need it. And I think for those of us who can bear a little more, I am personally happy to do so, to help seniors stay in their home and the other types of programs that exist to help people stay where they are. I see there is a point where that could be more burdensome depending on the number of programs and the number of people in those programs, that the shift could be harder, especially those right above those thresholds. Those are the people that have the hardest time because they don't quite qualify and yet are less able to deal with the fluctuations in their taxes.
CTNW: Currently, Bellingham is going to be going through quite a bit of changes with the waterfront redevelopment, and quite a few new multi-family units that are coming on line. Is that going to be a priority to get these Bellingham properties reassessed for their share of property taxes, based on increased property values due to the number of new properties?
Rebecca: I think the new construction is a priority for coming in because that impacts everybody. If more value is added it can relieve everybody else a little bit. I'm not positive off-hand if that particular area qualifies for the multi-family tax exemption. I know Bellingham does that in some targeted areas and actually Ferndale just passed that for their downtown core. In that case they would not hit the tax roles for a number of years, so I'm not positive off-hand if that waterfront section is within that zoned area or not.
CTNW: Would you go before the City Council and County Council to address that issue as far as a policy and how that would help to address affordability? Explaining to them how that could affect affordability to live in the City of Bellingham if they take a look at these policies and if they continue moving forward with this... If the City is needing to collect more money because they have higher density, yet there's an exemption, then that cost is shifted to the people who pay their property tax with no exemptions. So I believe that's valuable information that should be shared.
Rebecca: The nice thing, in my opinion, about the tax exemption is that it doesn't change anybody else's current tax obligation, it just delays the addition of the new construction. I do see the benefit of giving the tax exemption for areas—and I can speak for Ferndale specifically because we just did this—that we've had almost zero development in our downtown area for many, many decades, and yet we're getting so much sprawl around the edges. It is much cheaper for the City to deliver services and utilities if people would infill where the services already are. And there's often a lot more cost to that so developers choose not to. But if you can help offset their costs, they might choose to develop where we want them to. So it's a hard one. There are pros and cons on both sides, but as the Assessor I would be there to offer all the information on the impacts, to the decision makers.
CTNW: Is there anything we didn't ask you that you had hoped we would ask you that you would like to share?
Rebecca: As I go through this campaign process, I learn more interesting, fun things and I feel more qualified as I go along. I feel I can bring some stronger management and more options to the staff. I have worked on city budgets, and I can come into a County Council budget discussion and feel confident about presenting my information.
You can find out more about Rebecca Xczar and her campaign at www.votexczar.com.