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AGO 1961 No. 14 - February 23, 1961
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John J. O'Connell | 1957-1968 | Attorney General of Washington

TAXATION ‑- LEGISLATURE ‑- AUTHORITY TO VEST CITIES AND TOWNS WITH ASSESSMENT POWER AND THEIR LEGISLATIVE BODIES TO SERVE AS EQUALIZATION BOARDS

(1) The legislature by statute may vest cities and towns with the power to make their own property assessments for the purpose of determining the base for tax levies and bond issues, and also provide that any city may contract with the county assessor to make such assessments for the city.

(2) The legislature may empower cities and towns to authorize their legislative bodies to serve as the equalization board in regard to property assessments made for city purposes, such equalization board to replace the county equalization board which now so functions for cities and other taxing units.

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                                                                February 23, 1961

Honorable Donald C. Sampson
Executive Secretary
Legislative Council
Legislative Building
Olympia, Washington

                                                                                                                Cite as:  AGO 61-62 No. 14

Dear Sir:

            By letter previously acknowledged you have requested an opinion of this office on the following questions:

            1.         May the legislature by statute vest the cities and towns with the power to make their own property assessments, for the purpose of determining the base for tax levies and bond issues, and also provide that if desired any city may contract with the county assessor to make such assessments for the city?

            2.         May the legislature empower the cities and towns to authorize their legislative bodies to serve as the equalization board in regard to property assessments made for city purposes, such equalization board to replace the county equalization board which now so functions for the cities as well as for other taxing units?

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            We answer both questions in the affirmative.

 

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            Question 1:

            First, it should be noted that the county assessor is not a constitutional officer; his existence and duties accordingly derive from legislative enactment.  There are, however, certain constitutional provisions relating to property assessment, and these must be examined in order to determine the scope of legislative power over the process of assessment and over assessors in general.

            Article XI, § 12, of the State Constitution provides as follows:

            "The legislature shall have no power to impose taxes upon counties, cities, towns or other municipal corporations, or upon the inhabitants or property thereof, for county, city, town, or other municipal purposes, but may, by general laws, vest in the corporate authorities thereof, the power to assess and collect taxes for such purposes."

            Article VII, § 9, of the State Constitution provides as follows:

            "The legislature may vest the corporate authorities of cities, towns and villages with power to make local improvements by special assessment, or by special taxation of property benefited.  For all corporate purposes, all municipal corporations may be vested with authority to assess and collect taxes and such taxes shall be uniform in respect to persons and property within the jurisdiction of the body levying the same."

            Pursuant to these constitutional provisions, the legislature, in the earliest days of the state, provided that cities should do their own assessing.  See, for example, §§ 25, 105 and 143, chapter 7, Laws of 1890.  The office of the assessor, however, in the various classes of cities was subsequently abolished, and what is essentially the present system was established, with the county assessor taking over the duties of the city assessor.  See, for example, chapters 71 and 72, Laws of 1893.  We do not attempt here a detailed history of the statutory changes involved; it will suffice to note that the present proposal is hardly unprecedented.

            As to the constitutionality of the proposal, it should be noted that any controversy concerning the interpretation of these constitutional provisions has revolved either around the question of  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] whether the state may assess property for purposes of local taxation, or around the question of whether an official of one municipal corporation, such as a county, may act as assessor for another municipal corporation, such as a city or township.  See, for example,State ex rel. State Tax Com. v. Redd, 166 Wash. 132, 6 P. (2d) 619 (1932);Opportunity Township v. Kingsland, 194 Wash. 229, 77 P. (2d) 793 (1938);State ex rel. Seattle v. Carson, 6 Wash. 250, 33 Pac. 428 (1893).  It has never been contended that the legislature may not constitutionally empower a city to have its own assessor, and there is nothing in the language of the above constitutional provisions which would provide the basis for such a contention.  Thus inState ex rel. Seattle v. Carson, supra, the validity of the statutory provision establishing a city assessor was never questioned; the only question before the court was whether the provision could be repealed and the duties of the city assessor be given to the county assessor.

            Likewise, we find no constitutional objection to a proposal which would allow any city, if it so desired, to have the county assessor make assessments for the city.  That Article XI, § 12, does not invalidate such a proposal is clear fromState ex rel. Seattle v. Carson, supra.  And no constitutional objection seems to arise from the fact that under the proposed enactment it would be at the option of the city whether or not the county assessor would make assessments for the city.  As we are given to understand the options under the proposed bill, the city may (1) simply accept the results of the county assessor; or (2) it may enter into an actual contract with the county assessor, the terms of which will be arrived at by mutual agreement, and whereby the county assessor will do the assessing for the city; or (3) the city may appoint its own assessor.  In view of the unlikelihood that the very same assessor would place two different values upon the same piece of property for the same tax year, we fail to see the necessity of the second option.  We can find no constitutional objection, however, to the legislative authorization of any of these three options.

            Question 2:

            Just as the office of the county assessor is not a constitutional office, so the county board of equalization is not a constitutional body; its existence and duties derive solely from legislative enactment.  And the constitutional provisions discussed above and the cases cited above relate to the process of equalization of assessments as well as to the process of assessment itself.  Accordingly, in view of the analysis relating to Question 1, we can find no constitutional objection to granting to cities and towns the power to do their own equalizing of assessments.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

            If the two proposals discussed above were to be enacted into law, the likely result (and probably the intended result) would be that a city board of equalization would be able to place an assessed valuation upon a piece of property higher than that placed upon it by the county board.  Yet Article VII, § 2 (17th Amendment), obviously contemplates a single value being placed upon a piece of property, for it provides that the "assessment valuation shall be fifty percentum of the true and fair value of such property in money."  Thus, it might at first blush appear that these proposals could result in a lack of uniformity of assessed valuation that would violate Article VII, § 2,supra.  But Article VII, § 2,supra, does not simply demand uniformity in assessed valuation; it demands uniformity at a prescribed ratio of assessed to true valuation (viz., fifty percent).  The ultimate question would not relate to the difference between the assessment ratio of assessing agencies but rather to which agency was "out of step" with the constitutionally prescribed ratio.

            It should also be mentioned that the uniformity provision in Article VII, § 1 (14th Amendment), provides no obstacle to the proposed legislation.  Article VII, § 1,supra, reads in part as follows:

            ". . . All taxes shall be uniform upon the same class of property within the territorial limits of the authority levying the tax . . ."

            Obviously this provision means that the taxes imposed by a taxing district must be uniform throughout that district, and this uniformity could be destroyed either by lack of uniformity in millage rates or, as is more likely, by lack of uniformity in the assessed valuations upon which the levy is made.  But this provision does not demand uniformity of taxation as between different taxing districts, and, therefore, provides no objection to a lack of uniformity in assessed valuations as between different taxing districts.  The constitution does, of course, demand uniformity in assessed valuations as between different taxing districts, but this requirement is found in Article VII, § 2,supra, discussed above.

            Accordingly, no objections to the proposals arise from these two constitutional provisions.

Very truly yours,

JOHN J. O'CONNELL
Attorney General

TIMOTHY R. MALONE
Assistant Attorney General

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