County revamping ag land property taxes

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MOSES LAKE — Grant County is currently revamping how it assesses and taxes farmland.

But redoing the process is not likely to make it any less complex.

“It’s a very complex system, but we have complex agriculture here,” Grant County Assessor Melissa McKnight said.

And it’s something counties are entirely responsible for.

According to Cindy Boswell, a supervisor with the state Department of Revenue, land in Washington is supposed to be assessed at 100 percent of market value. However, some land in the state, such as farmland, open space, and timberland, is eligible to be taxed at “current use,” which means what the land is used for, how much income it generates, and what it costs to maintain it.

“Farm and agriculture is not based on current use by default,” Boswell said. “It has to be applied for and given.”

Since taking office in 2015, McKnight said her office has been working with an advisory committee of farmers to revise the current use system in Grant County. The new system, which is based on a series of soil surveys done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resource Conservation Service, considers whether the land grows root crops, row crops or forage, and whether it is irrigated or not.

The assessor said her office also considers the income derived from and expenses of maintaining farmland as part of its process.

McKnight said the proper valuation of farmland also involves a lot individual assessment as well, seeing what farmers have actually done and checking claims that land doesn’t actually yield what a soil survey suggests.

“Let us make that adjustment,” she said. “We’ll go out and look at land, revalue and adjust. We can do that on each parcel.”

“It’s a complicated formula with a lot of moving parts,” McKnight said. “Everything is moving here all the time.”

The formula aims at a lower value than the “highest, best use” used for residential and commercial property.

“Let’s get the information and get it right. I don’t want to waste the taxpayers’ time. We work for them,” McKnight said.

Property taxes are crucial in Washington, especially for school funding, because the state does not have an income tax. Property taxes pay for the bulk of local government, from county law enforcement to port operations to mosquito control districts.

For example, McKnight said the total assessed value of all land in the Moses Lake School District, which covers a great deal more territory in Grant County than simply the city of Moses Lake, is around $3.6 billion in 2017, of which agriculture/current use land is valued at about $334 million, or about 9 percent of the district’s total assessed value.

However, that 9 percent is paid by far fewer farmers on far larger tracts of land than the residential portion, which is spread out among thousands of taxpayers in the MLSD.

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