What Van Nortwick means by "save our fire services"

If you don’t hang up on robocalls, those automated political messages that tend to ring right when you are trying to get dinner on the table, you might hear Peter Van Nortwick make three promises.

Van Nortwick, a self-employed appraiser, is running against Janet Seekins for Clark County assessor. Seekins works in the assessor’s office as a residential appraiser.

The first promise? “Stop unfair property taxes.”

That should not be heard as a promise to lower property taxes, Van Nortwick said.

Van Nortwick argues the assessor’s office doesn’t know how to correctly assess properties, which leads to some people paying too much while others don’t pay enough. Seekins argues Van Nortwick doesn’t understand how to do mass appraisals.

His second promise? “Freeze the budget.”

By January, when either Van Nortwick or Seekins takes office, the 2011-12 budget for the office of Assessment and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) will have been approved by Clark County commissioners. Commissioners have told elected officials and department leaders not to expect any increases.

It’s his third promise, to “save our fire services,” that might be the most confusing for people who don’t know the background.

Van Nortwick is endorsed by Chief Dennis Mason of Clark County Fire and Rescue. Mason was burned last year by a bad preliminary estimate from the assessor’s office, which led him to lay off 19 part-time firefighters and two office staff.

Van Nortwick has criticized the county’s average assessment rate of 92 percent of market value.

Mason said Friday that each percentage point represents $50,000 in his district. So if Van Nortwick made good on his promise to assess at 100 percent of market value, that would bring in an additional $400,000, Mason said.

In taxing districts, mill rates can be adjusted when property values decline. But in Mason’s district, which includes Battle Ground, Ridgefield and La Center, property owners already pay the maximum of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value.

An additional $400,000 would allow Mason to hire six full-time firefighters, he said.

Seekins has defended the county’s 92 percent, which is five points higher than state average. She has also said she will enforce a strict no-estimates policy.

— Stephanie Rice

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