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Fire District No. 3 Denies All Charges In Levy Lawsuit

Klickitat County Fire Protection District No. 3 has denied all allegations made against it in Committee for Fair Taxation from Klickitat County Fire Protection District No. 3 v. Klickitat County Fire Protection District No. 3 and Klickitat County, et al, a lawsuit begun in Superior Court on Dec. 2.

The Committee for Fair Taxation from Klickitat County Fire Protec-tion District No. 3 is a group of Fire District residents who are objecting to the Fire Board’s decision – based on the advice of legal counsel — to fix the Fire District’s property tax levy lid at a maximum of 92 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation for the 2014 tax year and beyond. The committee wants to see the levy lid rolled back to the 2007 level: the rate before voters approved a six-year levy lid lift in November 2007 for ensuing tax years 2008-13. The committee maintains that the levy lid lift approved by voters was intended to be temporary and should have expired at the end of 2013. Last fall the Fire District adopted a budget for 2014 based on the existing levy rate. (The rate in 2013 was 77 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation, based on a budget of $323,000.)

In its answer to the committee’s petition for judicial review, the Fire District described the committee’s lawsuit as a frivolous action that the court should dismiss. The Fire District also asked for an award of all costs and expenses related to its defense against the lawsuit. The document dated Jan. 2, 2014 states, “Petitioners claims against the Respondent [Fire District] are not well grounded in law or fact, are brought to harass and annoy public officials and are entirely frivolous” under applicable federal and state laws. The filing was prepared for Fire District No. 3 by Thomas G. Burke of Burke Law Offices, Des Moines.

In a related development, Klic-kitat County, through Prosecuting Attorney Lori Hoctor, offered a proposed stipulated order of settlement last month to the Committee for Fair Taxation, through its attorney, Lance S. Stryker of White Salmon. Hoctor told The Enterprise in an e-mail that the proposed order of settlement sent Dec. 6 was “for review during preliminary negotiations. No agreement was reached, and it was not signed. There is no live settlement agreement.”

Under the proposal, the county agreed to “abide by all requirements set forth“ in applicable state laws, “certify that the subject levy lid lift is temporary and shall never be made permanent, based upon the statutes in effect on November 6, 2007, the date upon which the subject levy lid lift was passed…,” and pay petitioners $240 in reimbursement for filing fees and costs.

Hoctor said in an e-mail last week that the county’s settlement proposal did not affect the legal standing of the Fire District’s levy certification, which is at the heart of the lawsuit.

“There were a number of individuals named in the lawsuit filed by Mr. Stryker,” Hoctor noted. “Each named party is entitled to a response. If the judge rules in favor of the Fire District the levy rate will remain as certified. If the judge rules for Mr. Stryker, the Fire District will need to pay back the funds it received in the next year in excess of the corrected levy amount.”

A hearing date on the Committee for Fair Taxation’s petition for judicial review has not been set.

Fire District No. 3 voters ap-proved a six-year levy lid lift in 2007 in response to a Fire District request for additional funding that would be used to enhance the capabilities of the district’s fire departments based in Husum and at Cherry Lane on Snowden. In the spring of 2013, thinking that levy capacity was about to run out, Fire Commissioners Mark Zoller, Jon Riggleman, and Lester Penney started considering holding an election to make the levy lid permanent at 92 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation for tax year 2014 and beyond.

They contacted an expert in the field of fire district law, Brian Snure of Des Moines, whose office advises many fire districts across Washington. Snure advised the Fire Board not to run a levy last year because — based on his analysis of the 2007 ballot title and applicable laws and legal opinions — the levy lid in place was already permanent. Last August the Fire Board filed documents with the Assessor’s Office certifying the permanency of the Fire District’s levy lid.

As for 2014 tax collections, County Assessor Darlene Johnson must certify the Fire District’s levy rate based on an approved budget of $323,500. Her office had until Jan. 15 to complete levy certifications for all county taxing districts.

“The Assessor’s official position is that she does not have the authority to alter the resolution as provided to her by the Fire District,” Hoctor said. “She will be certifying the levy based on the numbers provided in the resolution and passed by the Fire District. The Assessor will abide by any court order. However, the resolution submitted by the Fire District is the guiding document for levy certification.”

The process of establishing levy rates begins each year in September when the Assessor’s Office provides preliminary property values to the taxing districts. The governing body of every taxing district is then required to adopt a budget following a public hearing. Next, budgets, levy certifications, and levy resolutions must be filed by Nov. 30 with the Board of County Commissioners, which then submits the documents to the Assessor’s Office.

“Once we have these documents, we then calculate the levy rates for each taxing district based on the total assessed value for each taxing district,” Johnson told The Enterprise on Monday. “Then we certify the tax rolls, or levy amounts, to the Treasurer by Jan. 15 so she can calculate the taxes on each parcel, which she then mails as tax bills to each taxpayer, usually in February.”

Johnson also addressed the question of how much authority the assessor has in setting or challenging the validity of levy rates, citing a 1980 Supreme Court decision in Hoppe v. King County that provides guidance for county assessors in the exercise of their statutory powers. In 1978, Harley H. Hoppe, then the King County assessor, challenged the validity of King County’s 1979 property tax ordinance and alleged that the levy amount exceeded the limit contained in applicable state law.

“According to Hoppe v. King County, county assessors ‘perform the ministerial duty of setting levy rates [but] lack the authority to challenge the validity of levy amounts established by legislative bodies,’” Johnson noted. “I understand that the lawsuit is asking me to certify a different amount but I don’t have that authority. The Fire District 3 commissioners are the ones who have the authority to certify a different amount.”

The court case also spells out what assessors are supposed to do following the setting of tax rates — “After the assessor has completed the assessment process and certified the values to the appropriate officers, the only remaining duties are to calculate the levy rates and to extend the taxes certified by the levy authorities into the tax rolls” — and the limits of their authority – state law “does not require or authorize the assessor to inquire into or certify the legality of the taxes themselves.”

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