Linda Hjelle, left, and Joe Wanagel

Linda Hjelle, left, and Joe Wanagel

Longtime Snohomish County assessor faces landlord’s election challenge

Linda Hjelle wants to keep up her work for a final term. Joe Wanagel thinks current property taxes are a sign for the assessor to go.

EVERETT — One candidate for assessor wants to reform the office’s operations and lower property taxes.

The incumbent’s counterpoint?

“We do have a law that we need to comply with.”

Linda Hjelle has been Snohomish County’s assessor since 2016. Political newcomer Joe Wanagel wants to replace her. The candidates differ on process and efficiency in the office.

The elected position is nonpartisan and largely administrative. The assessor oversees what values are assigned to properties throughout the county, both residential and commercial, in accordance with the law. The assessor doesn’t determine the rate of property taxes.

Each city and region of the county taxes residents at different rates to support services. The biggest share of taxes usually go to the local school district.

The city of Snohomish has the highest typical rate, at $8.7 per $1,000 of assessed value, according to the assessor’s 2023 annual report. Index has the lowest, $5.5 per $1,000.

Values fluctuate with the real estate market — and in recent years, they’ve skyrocketed. In 2022, residential property values in Snohomish County saw an overall increase of 32%, but in 2023, they finally plateaued, even decreasing by 6.61%.

The job pays $151,645.03 per year. Ballots are due Nov. 7.

Linda Hjelle

Hjelle, 60, is seeking a third term as the assessor. Term limits would make this her last four-year term.

She started in the assessor’s office over 30 years ago in an entry-level position and worked her way through the ranks. Hjelle, who lives in Granite Falls, thinks the years of experience in the office set her apart from her opponent.

She wants to help more people understand how assessment and property taxes work.

While in office, she has created more online resources on the assessor’s website, like a tax distribution tool to help property owners understand how much they are being taxed and where it is going in the county.

These tools boost transparency, she said.

One challenge her office faces is staffing.

Hjelle said she has been working with the County Council to fund and hire more staff.

In addition to physical inspections every six years, the office uses a mass appraisal system to assess roughly 300,000 properties in the county each year, in accordance with state law.

In that system, Hjelle’s office uses a number of approaches — previous sale prices, the income a home is generating or the estimated cost of replacing the home — to pinpoint the value.

When there are dramatic changes of supply or demand in the real estate market, that will be reflected in assessed values, she said.

“The last two years have been challenging because the market is really dynamic,” she said.

Hjelle sees the most misunderstanding in how changes in property values affect taxes.

“When people get their assessed value, they automatically assume their taxes are going to change by that amount,” she said.

But rates vary widely depending on the taxing district.

Hjelle raised just over $10,000 in campaign contributions.

Joe Wanagel

Wanagel, a 45-year-old landlord who lives in Bothell, is running because he thinks property taxes are too high.

The biggest problem in the assessor’s office today, he said, is that unfair valuations of homes are leading to spiked property taxes.

He thinks the office is currently under-appraising expensive homes and over-appraising cheaper homes.

“That is putting a larger tax burden on middle and low-income housing, and giving tax breaks to people with multi-million dollar mansions,” he said.

Wanagel thinks Hjelle and her staff rely too heavily on technology and the mass appraisal system.

Hjelle said it isn’t realistic to ditch the technology the office has been using for the past several years. She said the mass appraisal system is a standard across the country and that she simply doesn’t have the staff to appraise all the property in the county more often.

With more staff, Hjelle said, the office might be able to do physical inspections more often.

He hasn’t worked in an assessor’s office. However, he touted his over 20 years in the real estate industry.

Valuing properties is a critical part of his career as a landlord, he said.

He thinks the office would run more efficiently with the existing staffing levels if he were elected. Requesting more staff would mean spending more taxpayer money, however, which he wants to avoid, he said.

“I always want to be careful that when you’re trying to get more staff, make sure you need it,” he said. “I run companies. It’s all about efficiency all the time.”

He thinks the office can offer stronger support to people qualified for property tax exemptions, by using government data to identify senior citizens and people with disabilities.

Wanagel has reported no campaign contributions or expenditures.

Jenelle Baumbach: 360-352-8623; jenelle.baumbach@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @jenelleclar.

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