A new report from the King County Auditor’s Office found the King County Department of Assessments was overwhelmed and fell months behind on reviewing applications for property tax exemptions for seniors, people with disabilities, and disabled veterans.
Presented to the King County Council’s Government Accountability and Oversight committee on May 10, the latest report from the King County Auditor’s Office found that applications took a median of eight months to process in 2020 – twice as long as the previous year.
According to the report, while the department worked to speed up the process amid mandatory telework, a new software roll-out, and a threefold increase in applications, it couldn’t catch up enough to meet timeliness targets.
“The Assessor’s Office faced extraordinary circumstances in 2020 which made operations difficult and negatively impacted customers,” said King County Auditor Kymber Waltmunson. “Implementing these recommendations will help get results for seniors, people with disabilities, and disabled veterans seeking property tax exemptions in King County.”
In its report, the Auditor’s Office recognized that the Assessor’s Office worked amid “extraordinary challenges” beginning in early 2020, not least of which was a transition to remote work for a team that was primarily paper based until then.
In addition, the number of applications tripled in 2020 when the income threshold for exemption eligibility was raised by state law, adding tremendous workload to the department.
The audit also found:
-In 2020, state law expanded eligibility for the property tax exemption for seniors, people with disabilities, and disabled veterans by increasing the income threshold for all applicants and reducing the service-connected disability rating needed for disabled veterans. This tripled applications to the Assessor’s Office and led to a backlog of 4,913 new applications by year end.
-People applying in 2020 waited a median of eight months for a decision; customers’ wait-times to speak to the Assessor’s Office’s exemption staff and get tax refunds also grew significantly. Customer calls increased, but staff capacity to answer phones did not.
-The Assessor’s Office’s strategic decision to focus on new applications with shorter processing times enabled some customers to receive faster service but also led to missed state deadlines to renew existing exemptions. As a result, 17 percent of exemptions were overdue for renewal in 2021, meaning that some people getting the exemption may no longer be eligible.
-Despite increases in processing speed, the Assessor’s Office still had a backlog of 3,782 new applications by year end 2021 and planned to conduct renewals in 2022, suggesting that long wait times will continue in 2022.
-While the Assessor’s Office offered faster service to online applicants starting in 2020, the audit found that some applicants had difficulty accessing and completing an application online. Before the pandemic, the department depended on in-person assistance at service counters to help customers with applications. The department has since moved to a new office and is awaiting completion of a new service counter to restart this service.
-The Assessor’s Office’s exemptions program needed to update and strengthen management tools such as documented procedures, a training program, regular quality control, performance monitoring, and a culture of teamwork. Gaps in these areas reduced accountability, consistency, and transparency.
The Auditor’s report recommends several changes to improve customer experience and help the Assessor’s Office handle the increased workload. Recommendations include a data-driven staffing model, a comprehensive customer service strategy and more. The full report can be found here.