A conversation with the November candidates for Clark County Assessor

Darren Wertz runs for position against two-term incumbent Peter Van Nortwick

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Clark County voters will have a chance to decide between two candidates who are running for the position of Clark County Assessor this Nov. 6. Incumbent Peter Van Nortwick, who has been Clark County’s Assessor since 2011, will face challenger Darren Wertz.

Here are a few questions that the Vancouver Business Journal asked of the two candidates, and their answers:

Vancouver Business Journal:

Why did you decide to run for the county assessor position?

Van Nortwick: “I enjoy being the Clark County Assessor. In the eight years I have been in office we have achieved a lot, but there are significant challenges ahead as the office will have a large number of retirements in the next four years. I wanted to be sure that with significant members of the leadership team approaching retirement that the office would continue providing high quality services at the least cost to taxpayers through the transition.”

Darren Wertz: “To better represent the interests of the taxpayers. As taxpayers we want to feel like we are being treated fairly and with equal concern as everyone else. The incumbent’s attempts to charge businesses to dispute their property valuations and his sponsoring legislation are easily viewed as a grab for power … after eight years of this type of thinking, it is time for someone with a different, more taxpayer-friendly perspective to be setting policy.”

VBJ: What are your qualifications for this position?

Van Nortwick: “I am a Certified General Appraiser, which is the highest level of certification for appraisers. I have been appraising property professionally as a fee appraiser for over 10 years and of course leading a mass appraisal team for eight years. I am a graduate of the University of Washington and did my graduate business school at Seattle University and University of Colorado. I worked in international and domestic telecommunications startups prior to becoming an appraiser.”

Wertz: “On a professional level I have served as senior economist for the Naval Personnel Research and Development Center in Point Loma where I did projects for OMB modeling Naval Facilities like North Island, Naval Hospital San Diego and Miramar Naval Air Station to determine readiness impacts from federal budget cuts. I was the economist for Clark PUD where I did cost-of-service, and power and water demand and revenue forecasts as well as serving as liaison to government and civic organizations including the four-state Regional Power Council. I have been a commercial real estate broker with Forrest E. Olsen, Coldwell Banker and my own company, doing business and property valuations. I did commercial and residential loans with Key Mortgage in San Diego and worked with E.D. Hovee and Company on Officers Row doing land use consulting for clients in the NW and Colorado. I spent 12 years with the Board of Equalization, first as Chair of the Board and then as clerk when the clerk retired due to illness and her assistant died of cancer. In those 12 years I was able to help hundreds of taxpayers through the local and State Tax Boards successfully correct their property valuations. My education includes a bachelor’s degree in economics from University of California San Diego and a master’s degree from University of Oregon also in economics. I have taken and completed with high marks the 100-500 professional series of training with IAAO (International Association of Assessing Officers). I’ve also taken topical classes on various facets of appraising like “stigma” and “green building.”

VBJ: What are the top two or three challenges with property taxes, increasing property taxes, etc., that the Clark County area will be facing over the next two-three years?

Van Nortwick: “The biggest challenge I see on the horizon is taxing districts always collecting as much as they can from taxpayers. My opponent in his council position has voted in budgets the past three years that increased property tax collections 24.5 percent. Instead of minding district budgets and banking property tax capacity, the tax districts are taxing to their maximum capacity. The challenge comes when new construction isn’t as plentiful and they have built budgets based on significant growth. The second biggest challenge is the State school funding and the challenges from the methodology utilized by the state to determine property tax collections. The current methodology makes it difficult for the state, districts and taxpayers to plan for stability in property taxes.”

VBJ: How do you plan to take on those challenges?

Van Nortwick: “I am educating the public and the next generation of leaders running for office. I invite in candidates and discuss how the property tax system works on the ground so they can make better decisions. It is a lack of understanding of how the system operates and lack of clarity in ballot language that often catches voters unaware. Outside of the state schools taxes, most big increases in property taxes are because of new voter approved levies.”

Wertz: “My immediate challenge is to 1. Conduct a Practices Audit, 2. Perform a Functional Assessment and 3. Engage with staff in meaningful joint goal setting so that the department is ready to meet the challenges coming two to three years down the road. There was significant attrition when the incumbent took over and in re-staffing it appears from the DOR Assessors Comparative Reports that he has kind of stepped in to the chief appraiser slot and loaded up on admin to cover, but I won’t have the information until I get in office and do my own functional assessment to be able to speak to making it better. As for upcoming property tax challenges – growth continues to be a fact of life in Clark County and just as I’ve done in helping the fastest growing city in the state anticipate, embrace and direct that growth to enhance the community’s vision rather than erode it, I will encourage and facilitate the Assessor’s Office to perform and innovate excellence in public service.”

“As things heat up with growth and development, fairness is a standard that must not be lost. The appraisal process is sped up by AI and electronic monitoring. But here too is a risk of depersonalizing the individual taxpayer. Algorithms need to be carefully crafted to recognize and adjust to unique situations. In reality, each property and tax valuation is unique. Property characteristics statistically identified and valued provide a bottom line for appraisal. More information provides more opportunity for analysis and increases the need for careful policy oversight. Policy has typically been the role for the elected assessor and I bring experience and expertise as a policy maker. The Assessor’s Office operates within a body of laws and regulations. That statutory framework defines our perception of fairness.”

VBJ: How do you plan to take on those challenges?

Wertz: “With intent, focus and humility. I do not intend on leaning too much on my own understanding. I intend on utilizing the plentiful talent and potential that is available.”

VBJ: Mr. Van Northwick, I saw in your statement in the voters’ pamphlet that you talked about new construction being your most labor-intensive work. Can you talk a little bit more about that? What makes it so labor-intensive? How do you keep up with it? Do you see the work continuing to increase as new construction increases in the area?

Van Nortwick: “One of the main duties of the assessor is the listing of property and its characteristics. When a structure is first built, that is the best opportunity to check to make sure the measurements and characteristics are accurate in our system. Each new structure is measured and verified. If we get the characteristics right when it is built or remodeled, in the following years it is just verifying the characteristics have not changed. We are able to keep up with new construction because the office is back on time meeting its statutory mailing date. The office has all hands on deck and new construction takes top priority to ensure it gets done and on the tax rolls by the statutory deadline.”

VBJ: Mr. Wentz, in Peter Van Nortwick’s statement in the voters’ pamphlet, he talks about new construction being the most labor-intensive work for the assessor’s office. Can you address that? What makes it so labor-intensive? How do you plan to keep up with it? Do you see the work continuing to increase as new construction increases in the area?

Wertz: “Ask me six months after I am in office if there is a problem and my management solution.”

VBJ: What are some of the biggest\tax changes that will be coming up in this area over the next two to three years?

Van Nortwick: “There is talk throughout the state of a potential homestead exemption and with increasing home and assessed values I see that as gaining steam in the State Legislature. In addition, I am continuing to push for expansion of the senior exemption program and tying the income requirements to the median income of the County. One big change I would like to see is changes in personal property taxes and instead of a business having to file in each county, I would like to see centralized filing with the state. The county-by-county filing, some online and some still on paper, is too much of a burden for smaller businesses.”

Wertz: “I will have to defer to our legislative delegation. There are changes that can be made, for example, to help keep people from being taxed out of their homes. The Legislature can choose to take up this issue, I can be a resource, but taxes and tax changes are up to them.”

VBJ: What do you feel sets you apart from your opponent?

Van Nortwick: “Competency. My opponent does not have the qualifications to appraise any properties in Washington State. I don’t think he really understands that as a city councilor he is the individual raising taxes on the taxpayers. The Assessor’s Office isn’t the place where you can “give taxpayers a break.” Giving them a break happens when a tax district council votes on their budget and how much they want the assessor to collect from tax payers. In the Assessor’s Office our job is to distribute the property taxes approved by the tax district board to each of the taxpayers based on assessed value. Raising or lowering assessed values just impacts the tax rates for a tax district. It does not impact the amount collected in property taxes from the taxpayers.”

Wertz: “Perspective, pure and simple. I am dedicated to the proposition that the person paying the bills deserves respect. I am not here to oversee a machine that can quickly and efficiently remove money from your pocket. Rather I am here to provide the means whereby we all can trust that we are picking up our fair share of the burden.”

VBJ: Can you address the new state school tax and what kind of stress that has added to a lot of citizens in the area?

Van Nortwick: “The state school taxes mandated that a tax rate of $2.70 per $1,000 of market value be collected from the taxpayers. In Clark County, because our assessment ratio of market value to assessed value was about 93 percent, the 2018 tax rate was $2.89 per $1,000 up from $1.98 in 2017. The state directed Clark County to collect $61.5 million more in property taxes from our taxpayers in 2018 than 2017. For most this was about a $450 increase in property taxes. My opponent is trying to make it out that the $0.19 extra per $1,000 is the assessor error and costing the taxpayers millions more in property taxes. That claim is based upon a lack of understanding of how the assessment system works. To eliminate the $0.19 per $1,000, I would have had to raise assessed values by 7 percent, and based on a bell curve half of the properties would be over assessed. Cowlitz County had a similar $2.89 tax rate and Skamania County was $3.03. The higher the tax rate just demonstrates the lower the assessed values and has no impact on what taxpayers have to pay statewide. The good news with state school funding is this portion of property taxes will be decreasing this year. Most taxpayers in Clark County will see a tax rate in 2019 between state schools and local operations levies of $4 per $1,000 versus 2018 tax rates ranging from $5.47 to $6.21. For a $400,000 home, depending on the district, this will be a tax decrease of between $588 to $884.”

Wertz: “Most families have some form of budget that tries to make sure there is not too much month left at the end of the money. Usually if we are given warning we can adjust to accommodate “required” expenditures. The painful part is when we expect one thing and encounter something else. That is why the numbers are so important. It appears that the numbers that were provided and incorporated in the formulation of the new state school tax had to be corrected and Clark County taxpayers ended up with a higher millage rate than was expected – projected – (whatever) by the agreement. These kind of errors impact us all fiscally and physically. I’ve seen estimates of upwards of $10 million more from Clark County taxpayers than initially projected in the plan.”

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Joanna Yorke is the managing editor of the Vancouver Business Journal. She has worked in the journalism field since 2010 after graduating from the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University in Pullman. Yorke worked at The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground for six years and then worked at and helped start ClarkCountyToday.com.