The King County Assessor’s Office has struggled to keep up with applications for property tax exemptions from seniors, people with disabilities and disabled veterans, resulting in monthslong wait times for eligible applicants, a new report from the county Auditor’s Office found.
Seniors and people with disabilities are eligible for discounts on their property taxes if they earn less than about $58,000 a year, a threshold that was raised in 2020, causing a boom in applications.
The Assessor’s Office couldn’t keep up with the boom, the auditor’s report found.
“Big picture, we found that customers had a difficult time in some cases getting tax relief and that stronger systems are needed to meet the demand,” King County Auditor Kymber Waltmunson said.
People who applied for exemptions in 2020 waited a median of eight months to get a decision, the report found, while waits to speak with Assessor’s Office staff on the phone and to get tax refunds also grew significantly.
Applications tripled from 2019, and wait times more than doubled. At the same time, the Assessor’s Office launched a new online platform for handling property tax exemptions, and it proved unstable and glitchy. And the Assessor’s Office apparently had difficulty transitioning to remote work with the pandemic.
“Because their daily work involved paper applications, face-to-face customer service, and old mainframe computer systems prior to 2020, experienced team members found the
shift to the online system and remote work particularly challenging,” the report said.
The Assessor’s Office hired a “change management vendor” to help with the shifts.
Refund checks, for those granted exemptions after already paying, were also delayed by months, the report found, “delaying financial relief for residents.”
About 19,000 low-income homeowners in King County receive the property tax exemptions, saving them an average of about $4,100 a year, part of a state program intended to make it easier for seniors and people with disabilities to stay in their homes.
The Assessor’s Office had a backlog of more than 3,700 applications that it still had to wade through at the end of 2021, the report found.
“The Assessor’s Office faced extraordinary circumstances in 2020 which made operations difficult and negatively impacted customers,” Waltmunson said. “Implementing these recommendations will help get results for seniors, people with disabilities, and disabled veterans seeking property tax exemptions in King County.”
Metropolitan King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski said his office has heard from more than 100 people “pleading for help,” because of delays from the Assessor’s Office.
“Not just frustrated, but scared,” Dembowski said. “These are veterans, disabled folks, seniors who are on the edge economically with our high property taxes here in the county, trying to stay in their homes.
“And when they don’t get an answer for their pending application for six months, seven months, eight months, a year, their frustration turns to fear and sometimes actual adverse consequences for their housing stability,” Dembowski said.
Kay Landolt first began trying to get her property tax exemption in the beginning of March 2020, but she found she could only apply online. She found the online program inoperable — it required her full tax return, but only the first two pages would upload. It took the Assessor’s Office weeks to respond to her emails, she said, and she could never manage to get anyone on the phone.
She ended up having to abandon the online platform and send her application by mail, twice.
“It was kind of as if some tech sadist had designed this process to make old people cry,” said Landolt, who’s retired and owns a condo in Northgate.
Finally, after her County Council member interceded on her behalf, Landolt’s application was accepted at the end of September.
County Assessor John Wilson, in response to the audit, largely agreed with its conclusions and said he was working to implement the recommended changes, including staffing increases and training.
But he stressed that the increase in applications was bigger and came on quicker than anyone expected. He said the audit doesn’t give enough credence to the effects of COVID-19, which forced department staff to work remotely just as applications boomed.
The Assessor’s Office increased its pace in processing exemptions by 70% in 2021, the report found, but still did not meet internal targets or the timelines it was telling residents.
“It remains unclear when customer experience will improve,” said Megan Ko, one of the report’s authors.