The Assessor's Office is responsible for setting assessments, the official values for properties, from an empty lot to the newest Wal-Mart. Those values determine how much people pay in property taxes to the county, a fire district or whatever.
Property taxes are a central pillar of local governments. They are the single largest source of revenue for city of Spokane, for example, and the way the city wants to pay for the proposed $50 million road bond coming up for a vote in March.
Here's how they're set: Local governments -- like, for example, the city of Spokane -- set an annual budget, including a portion of that budget supported by property taxes. The government turns over that number to the Spokane County Assessor, who then computes the tax rate by dividing the amount of money needed by the value of property inside the boundaries of the government seeking the money, explains John Sweetman, chief deputy assessor.
There are actually two kinds of values, one for general funds that includes all residential and commercial properties; and a second for special bond measures that subtracts exempt properties, like those of senior citizens.
Commercial properties are valued somewhat differently than residential, but both pay the same rates.
In the city of Spokane's case, the total value of property it contains is $8.922 billion, according to Sweetman. The city's 2002 general tax levy works out to $4.76 per $1,000 of assessed value, collected in halves in the coming year. It's expected to raise $26 million for the city this year.
An additional county levy runs about $1.50 per thousand.
"There are very, very few people in the state who really understand this, and that includes the (state) Department of Revenue," says Sweetman. "This is one of the few areas where explaining it is a full-time job."