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Seniors, people with disabilities, and disabled veterans applying for property tax exemptions with the Department of Assessments (DOA) waited eight months for decisions in 2020—twice as long as in 2019. This resulted from a state-level eligibility expansion in 2020, nearly tripling the number of applications DOA received. DOA increased the number of exemptions decisions it issued in 2021 but not enough to prevent long customer waits. Moreover, DOA’s strategies to increase output, namely deferring state-mandated renewals and reducing customer responsiveness, had negative outcomes. Before 2021, the exemptions program had gaps in management systems, contributing to delayed and inconsistent service. We recommend that DOA strengthen management with increased oversight, a documented customer service strategy, and a data-driven staffing model to deliver exemptions decisions promptly and provide responsive customer service.

Watch the presentation (11:49)

Summary

Property tax exemptions for seniors, people with disabilities, and disabled veterans aim to preserve homeownership for Washington state residents who have low or fixed income and may be unable to work. King County residents saw food prices increase 8 percent and energy prices increase 25 percent between December 2020 and December 2021. Median housing costs for homeowners were $29,724, and $9,732 per year for those with and without a mortgage, respectively. In 2021, property tax exemptions saved nearly 19,000 county residents an average of $4,123 a year, helping them pay their bills. As property taxes increase with area home values, prompt and accurate exemptions decisions are crucial to keeping housing affordable and ensuring public trust in the property tax system.

The Department of Assessments (DOA) issues property tax exemptions to King County residents who meet state eligibility requirements. In 2020, the state expanded eligibility for the program. This nearly tripled the number of applications DOA received and doubled the median wait for customers to eight months. In 2021, DOA boosted its output of exemptions decisions by 70 percent but still did not meet internal targets or timelines communicated to customers. DOA increased output by adjusting strategies, adding staff, deferring state-mandated renewals, and reducing outreach and responsiveness to customers. Since higher application volumes are unlikely to go away, DOA will need to find ways to further increase output to improve customer experience.

DOA’s exemptions team lacked documentation and clarity in core management tools such as new procedures, an up-to-date training program, robust quality assurance, and individual performance monitoring. These gaps stemmed from a lack of accountability and consistency in a paper-based environment with little teamwork or transparency. The launch of an online platform for property tax exemptions in 2020 radically changed the team’s work environment. In 2021, new management and staff joined the team, generating positive change. Despite these improvements, DOA entered 2022 with several important management updates still awaiting implementation.

To meet its goals for prompt and accurate exemptions decisions, we recommend that DOA increase oversight and implement policies and procedures to comply with state rules for exemption renewals. We also recommend that DOA document procedures, training plans, a customer service strategy, and a staffing model to ensure the exemptions team is ready to meet increased demand.

Audit team

Megan Ko, Luc Poon, and Kymber Waltmunson worked on this audit. If you have any questions or would like more information, please call the King County Auditor's Office at 206-477-1033 or contact us by email at KCAO@kingcounty.gov.