Taxes up 7.71 percent from last year as property values recover from recession

Property tax bills mailed out to Columbia County property-owners Friday, Oct. 11, may contain an unwelcome surprise for some households.

County Assessor Sue Martin’s office reported last week that more than $59 million in property taxes are being billed to county property-owners this year. That represents a 7.71 percent increase over last year.

The $54.8 million in property taxes last fall was a comparatively small 1.79 percent increase from 2011.

Much of the increase this year is attributable to Portland General Electric, which is paying more in property taxes to the county than last year due to the expiry of an enterprise zone benefit that has kept its tax bill low, company spokeswoman Brianne Hyder said Tuesday, Oct. 15.

The Columbia County property tax bill for PGE is $3.72 million, Martin’s office disclosed in a list of the county’s largest taxpayers, which the Portland-based electric company topped.

“We’ve got some significant assets in the region,” Hyder observed.

Last year, PGE was third on the list, with a $1.08 million tax bill.

The amounts for Northwest Natural Gas Co. and United States Gypsum, which rounded out the top three on both this year’s list and last year’s list, have increased much more modestly from last year. All three saw small increases in their property values.

Real market values for many properties in Columbia County are still below maximum assessed value. State law limits maximum assessed value to a 3 percent annual increase, but some properties are seeing faster increases in real market value as they recover from recession, Martin said. That means taxes on some properties where market value is lower than maximum assessed value are rising more than 3 percent this year, she explained.

“Now, if a person’s real market value is 10 percent below the maximum assessed ... and then we put a 5 percent increase on the real market value, they’re going to pay 5 percent more in taxes because they’re still not paying their maximum value,” said Martin.

The market value of taxable property increased by just 0.25 percent from 2011 to 2012. This year, the market value increase is 4 percent. According to Martin’s office, the combined market value of taxable property in the county now stands at $5.71 billion.

The total tax assessed value of property in the county increased 6.73 percent to $4.41 billion, according to Martin — an increase that includes the value of new and improved developments as well. That increase compares with a 1.35 percent jump last year.

Values have increased the most in Clatskanie, where real market values rose by 15.1 percent in the city and 12.7 percent in the rural area, versus 7.49 percent and 7.13 increases in assessed values respectively.

Real market values also chalked up increases in the high single digits in the cities of Columbia City and Scappoose, at 8.91 percent and 8.15 percent, respectively. Columbia City’s assessed values averaged a 5.69 percent increase, versus a 5.56 percent increase in Scappoose.

St. Helens’ real market values increased 5.8 percent, with a 4.79 percent assessed value uptick.

Martin said the increase in property values is a positive indicator for the real estate market.

“That is a good sign,” said Martin. “Values are finally starting to come back up. They’ve been on a downtrend for so long.”

Martin noted that values for this year are assessed between Jan. 1, 2012, and Jan. 1, 2013, meaning that the assessments have not captured any further trending in property values since the start of the year.

The first property tax payment is due Nov. 15. The county provides a 3 percent discount to those who pay their property tax bill in full on the first payment, and a 2 percent discount if two-thirds of the bill is paid.

The second and third payments are otherwise due next year, on Feb. 18 and May 15, respectively.

Martin said people with questions about their assessments should contact her office. She is referring questions about individual tax bills to the Columbia County tax collector.

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