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Wednesday, August 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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20 percent jump in tax assessments shocking to some

Seattle Times staff reporter

Linda Peterson's 1,200-square-foot rambler in Monroe has the same avocado-colored sinks it had when she bought it in 1975. She and her husband, David, finally replaced the shag carpet a few years ago, but few other improvements have been made.

Imagine their surprise when they received a notice from the county assessor that their property's 2006 assessed value had jumped more than $86,000 from the previous year.

"And I'm thinking, 'For what?' I can't imagine why," Linda Peterson said.

The assessed value of Vernon Johnson's half-acre lot in Everett spiked $68,000 in the same period.

"It jumped from $178,000 in 2005 to $246,000 in 2006," said Johnson. "Wouldn't that get your attention?"

Increases in property taxes, determined in part by assessed values, are a serious concern, especially for senior citizens, like Johnson, 79.

"A lot of us who are retired on fixed incomes don't have the means to pay those kinds of taxes," he said.

Snohomish County properties had an average increase of 20 percent in assessed value this year from 2005, according to a report from the county assessor.

That's almost double the 11.3 percent increase in property values statewide, according to the state Department of Revenue. It's also a leap for Snohomish County, which saw increases of about 11 percent in 2004 and again in 2005.

A blazing real-estate market in Snohomish County is to blame, County Assessor Cindy Portmann said.

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"As long as people keep buying at these prices, market values will continue to climb," she said.

But former King County Assessor Harley Hoppe, who now helps homeowners with appraisals, property taxes and appeals through his firm on Mercer Island, thinks that assessed values are sailing so much higher not because of the market, but because of county officials.

"This is a criticism of Pierce, King and Snohomish counties. They've gone to the max height of the market and it's scaring residents," said Hoppe. "It's absolutely ridiculous. Values do not increase like this."

But Portmann said assessments reflect market value more accurately than ever before because of recent changes in the way homes are assessed.

Property valuation used to run on a four-year cycle, with only a quarter of the properties in the county assessed annually. But since 2004, properties have been assessed every year. The total assessed value of tax districts within the county helps determine the levy rate for the following year, Portmann said.

Still, properties are physically inspected only once every six years. For year-by-year valuations, the county instead relies on recent sale prices of comparable houses, tracked by database, Portmann said.

That's Hoppe's concern. Assessed values quickly become inflated when the comparison process becomes automated, he said. And when it comes to raising revenue, it's in a taxing district's best interests to focus on peak prices, he said.

What's more, many residents don't realize they can contest their assessments, Hoppe said.

Marsha Carlsen, chief clerk for the County Board of Equalization, pointed to the back of an official notice and said: "All the information is right here."

Residents have 60 days from the mailing date of a notice to appeal to the board. The bulk of mailings went out about two months ago and had an Aug. 4 filing deadline. About 1,200 to 1,300 county residents have appealed, she said.

While the right to appeal is spelled out, retiree Norman Hellbusch believes that many residents have a "what's the use?" attitude about their property's assessed value.

Hellbusch had accepted consecutive yearly increases until the assessed value of his lakefront property on Lake Stickney, just north of Lynnwood, swelled more than $120,000 from 2005. The shock prompted him to scrutinize what the county calls "comparable" real estate.

After some investigating, Hellbusch found the county was using newly developed homes tapped into city utilities and other infrastructure.

"We're all still on septic tanks," he said.

He did his own comparisons, based on four similar properties sold recently in his neighborhood.

"Every one of those lots did not go up to my property's assessed value," he said.

Since receiving notices of soaring assessed values, Hellbusch, Johnson and Peterson all have filed appeals with the Snohomish County Board of Equalization.

Kathy F. Mahdoubi: 206-464-8292 or kmahdoubi@seattletimes.com

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