A condo for sale on California Street in Everett in April, 2018. (Sue Misao / The Herald file photo)

A condo for sale on California Street in Everett in April, 2018. (Sue Misao / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Linda Hjelle merits third term as county assessor

The office sets the fair market value of properties for taxes. Hjelle has been a good steward of that process.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Of the Snohomish County office posts on this year’s ballot, that of county assessor may be the least understood yet most important, at least regarding the property taxes paid to support the services provided by county, city, school, port, fire and other districts on which residents depend.

While those taxing districts, levy and bond elections and the state determine what property owners and homeowners and — if we’re honest — renters pay for every $1,000 of property value, it’s the county assessor’s office that determines the value of real and personal property to do the math for the tax bill that shows up in the mailbox.

The current assessor, Linda Hjelle of Everett, has served in the assessor’s office for 34 years, including 11 years as chief deputy assessor before winning her first term in 2015, succeeding Cindy Portmann, who had served three terms and was term-limited. Hjelle ran unopposed in 2019 for the office. She now seeks her third term.

Hjelle is challenged by Joe Wanagel of Mill Creek, who has not served in public office before but has 20 years of experience in real estate as a real estate business owner, property owner, investor and landlord who points to his practical experience in valuing property.

Wanagel, in a joint interview with the editorial board, said he was running because he believes the practices of the current assessor’s office are not resulting in fair valuations of property, something he said he’s seen first-hand.

In recent years, the average assessed value of homes and properties has jumped significantly, up 32.5 percent in 2022, although the average increase in property taxes was calculated at 8.4 percent, as The Herald reported in February.

Wanagel said county property owners, including himself, have seen assessed values increase 30 percent to 50 percent and higher. As a landlord with property taxes increasing by thousands of dollars for a rental property, for example, that has meant rent increases of $300 a month for one family he rents to, he said.

“Maybe they can’t afford to live there anymore. So unfortunately, improperly valued property sometimes means financial evictions for people,” he said.

Wanagel faults the office’s practice of using a formula called mass appraisal for each year’s reassessment of value, backed by a physical inspection of some 300,000 individual properties in the county every six years. That process, he said, doesn’t take into account a property’s value over a five-year period, resulting in “shocking” increases in value in certain years.

Hjelle doesn’t dispute the shocking increases, but that is what the real estate market has reflected in recent years.

“That’s what the market did do in the Puget Sound region,” she said.

Hjelle defended the use of mass appraisal, and noted that it is the standard for almost all counties in Washington. Rather than performing annual appraisals for every property in the county, which would be not be logistically or financially possible for a county assessor’s offices, mass appraisal analyzes properties for similar market influences and characteristics, such as the structure’s age, materials, location and more, then compares that property to similar properties.

As a further check, she said, properties are compared to recent sale prices of similar properties in the area.

“We use two pieces of information, two approaches to come up with that value, so it’s not simply a value that’s calculated by a computer,” she said. “There’s a great deal of analysis that goes along with the process.”

And along with a physical inspection of each property every six years, information is updated as renovations are made and as properties are sold, she said.

Hjelle also pointed to the county’s appeal process, handled by the Board of Equalization and separate from the assessor’s office, as a check on its work. But Hjelle said those with questions about their annual assessments or appraisals should contact her office first, allowing employees to verify information and make changes that might result in an adjusted assessment.

In making their own assessments of the two candidates, voters should consider the comparables regarding the education and experience of Wanagel and Hjelle.

Wanagel, who calls himself home-schooled and a life-long learner, draws from practical experience but has had no formal training or education in appraisal.

Hjelle, likewise has no formal degree in real estate appraisal, but relies on 34 years of practical experience, including nearly 12 years as Portmann’s deputy. Additionally, she has completed courses from the International Association of Assessing Officers in mass appraisal and tax administration. Hjelle also earned a bachelor’s degree in language arts and education, which has prepared her for the position’s critical tasks in dealing with the public, providing customer service and accessible information about the office and its processes.

There are those who will look at their property tax bill and believe a change is needed. Considering the state’s reliance on property taxes for the operations of schools, counties, cities and more, maybe change is necessary. But there are two parts to the property tax equation, and change may be more appropriate as to the levels of funding for each and the broader sources of tax revenue. Those decisions are made by state legislators and local officials, not the assessor.

Hjelle, for two terms, has shown herself as a responsible steward of a state-regulated process to determine the fair market value of properties.

Voters, interested in fair and transparent decisions for that half of the property tax equation, should elect Hjelle to a third term.

Nov. 7 Election

Ballots for Snohomish County voters have been mailed, and must be returned to ballot drop boxes or mailed by 8 p.m. Nov. 7. The county voters guides were mailed Oct. 18, are also available online at tinyurl.com/SnoCoVoterGuide23. More information on the election, ballot drop box locations and registering to vote is available at tinyurl.com/SnoCoVote23.

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