Bringing transparency to local government: King County’s Taxpayer Transparency Tool

  • A new taxpayer transparency tool in Washington State’s King County helps residents see how much their property is taxed and where those tax dollars go.
  • The tool was used to help voters see exactly how much a proposed property tax levy on the ballot in 2018 would cost them.
  • Transparency experts believe the tool is unique and could serve as a model for other counties and cities, but cost could be prohibitive for smaller jurisdictions.

A breath of transparency for King County taxpayers

When it came time for voters in Seattle to decide whether they wanted to support Proposition 1, a new education levy on the ballot in the 2018 midterm election, they had a new resource to help them make an informed decision: King County’s Taxpayer Transparency Tool.

Tested in April during a special election and made widely available for ballot measures in the August primary, the tool allows taxpayers to simply plug in their address to see exactly how much their property is currently taxed — as well as how those tax dollars are dispersed across local, regional, and state-wide infrastructure and services.

Leading up to the midterms, the tool also showed them how much Prop. 1 would increase taxes on their individual properties, providing a level of detail far beyond the typical projections of how much a proposed property tax will cost a median valued home.

“Usually, you start out with a median valued home. But who lives in a median valued home?” King County Assessor John Wilson speaking of such projections, told The Seattle Times. “Then you quickly get into how many lattes… and pretty soon you have a terrible caffeine buzz on.”

In a press release last July, Wilson, a former journalist, listed the factors that led him to create the new tool:

  • The property tax system in Washington State is complicated. This new tool allows voters to make informed decisions about ballot measures, and helps illustrate how our tax system works.
  • News stories or other information about ballot measures typically use a median-valued or average property as the example for the cost of the proposal. “The problem is most people don’t live in a median-valued property, so those estimates just don’t seem relevant,” Wilson said.
  • The Assessor’s Office receives a number of inquiries via phone and email in the lead up to voting on property tax measures by residents wanting to know how much these measures will cost them. This tool will be an efficient and effective way to answer these questions, as residents can find the answer on-line whenever it is convenient for them – not just during normal business hours.

With property values spiking to all-time highs across King County in recent years, Wilson said taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going and how much proposed property tax levies will cost them.

“Property taxes keep going up,” he said. “We need to make sure the public understands why.”

King County is working on policy proposals to relieve the property tax burden on homeowners, especially those on fixed income, Wilson added. But in the meantime, he said, the least the county can do is give taxpayers more information about their complicated property tax system.

“The intent here isn’t to take sides one way or another,” he told The Times. “You just want people to understand.”

The tool was developed for King County by Spatialest Inc, an enterprise software company focusing on “Location, Value and Technology.”

A model for local government?

Wilson said his office has looked around the nation but has not seen anything similar to King County’s Taxpayer Transparency Tool. Government transparency elsewhere experts believe the tool, which they agree appears to be unique, could potentially serve as a model for other local governments seeking to help citizens better understand how their taxes are levied and spent.

“We applaud any government agency that goes above and beyond the minimum requirements of the law to enable people to more easily access information and to make that information more useful and understandable,” Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, told Grassroots Pulse. “The assessment and distribution of property taxes is one of the more obscure areas of law and many people are confused about how the system works.”

To the extent that the tool helps both property owners and renters (who pay taxes indirectly through rent prices) better understand their taxes, then it is a valuable contribution to transparency that other government agencies should consider emulating, Nixon explained. A better understanding of how government works, even if relatively narrow in scope, he said, “promotes greater trust of government by the people and greater willingness to consider allowing government to tackle more complex problems.”

Nixon believes the tool could potentially serve as a model for other jurisdictions, but he said it’s important to keep in mind that King County, which has a larger population than some states, has vastly more resources than most local governments. This allows it to do things that most other cities and counties could not afford.

In the case of the Taxpayer Transparency Tool, that means forgoing certain revenue streams. Katya Abazajian, Open Cities Director at the Sunlight Foundation, told Grassroots Pulse that the tool sounds unique because many cities choose to make money off their property data by selling it to proprietary data warehousing firms.

“The fact that the county is taking steps to publicly and freely release the data I think is a good step toward putting residents’ needs before developers’ needs in a region where (like many other metropolitan regions), housing development is contentious and often comes at the expense of less privileged folks,” she said. “I’d certainly say that this tool is a model that other governments should adopt.”

But what about the cost of creating such a tool?

“It’s possible that a cloud-based service to make tax data available in this form could enable smaller local governments to provide it to their taxpayers without needing to recreate the service from scratch,” Nixon said. However he noted that he is not aware whether such a service already exists.

Image Credit: “Downtown Seattle” by Tiffany Von Arnim is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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