Property tax revenue in Clatsop County has jumped by more than one-third over the past decade and 138% over the last two decades amid burgeoning property values.
Nearly $230 million in bonds approved by voters over the past three years have also helped drive tax rates to their highest point in at least a decade. The tax rates still pale in comparison to revenue before statewide property tax reforms passed in the 1990s.
Voters within the Seaside School District approved a $100 million bond in 2016 to build a new master campus out of the tsunami inundation zone. Astoria voters approved $70 million last year to improve its campuses. Warrenton-Hammond voters endorsed $38.5 million last year to buy a new master campus and build a middle school. County voters signed off on a $20 million bond last year to relocate the Clatsop County Jail from Astoria to a shuttered state youth prison in Warrenton.
Suzanne Johnson, the director of the county’s tax department, has worked there 37 years and said she has never seen so many bonds at once.
“For the most part, people have been positive,” she said of the increased tax rates. “They understood that they voted for it. We haven’t had too much negative feedback.”
As of Friday, the county had collected nearly 90% of a possible $91 million in property taxes due in the latest cycle. The county averages a 96% collection rate.
Construction of the new Seaside School District master campus is in the home stretch, with a completed roof and a nearly closed-in building, said Superintendent Sheila Roley. The school district has spent more than $58 million of its bond funds.
“We anticipate the building being complete by the first of August,” she said.
The school district’s large property value base of more than $3 billion, encompassing numerous hotels and expensive beachfront homes, meant the district was able to keep tax increases to $1.36 per $1,000 of assessed value, the lowest of any of the school bonds. The district also received a premium of $11 million when selling the bond and $6 million in grants to help offset cost overruns of about 15% on the campus construction.
The school district has received fewer than 10 complaints about increased taxes and questions about what the district can do to lower bills, Roley said.
“I tell them we can refinance, but not until after 10 years,” she said. “But we also got this bond at a historically low interest rate, so that might not be financially advantageous.”
Astoria School District has so far spent nearly $3 million of its $70 million bond, finishing many of the renovations at Lewis and Clark Elementary School. Major construction on a new academic hall at Astoria Middle School and modernizations and security upgrades at all campuses begin in the summer.
Lewis and Clark was financed by a $20 million bond passed by voters in 2000. The school district timed the new bond to start as the old one runs out, limiting the increase in taxes to $1 per $1,000 of assessed value.
Superintendent Craig Hoppes said the school district has had broad support for the improvements and focuses on regularly updating the community on how their money is being spent.
“At this point right now, we’re still looking at the same scope we told voters we were going to do,” he said.
Warrenton-Hammond School District has spent more than $8 million of its $38.5 million bond, primarily on 70 acres of land off Dolphin Avenue where it plans to relocate all school campuses. The district has nearly completed work on a new career-technical building next to Warrenton High School that will host automotive, welding and technology courses.
Tax rates in Warrenton jumped by nearly $2 per $1,000 of assessed value after the bond. But the city still has the lowest tax rate of any city, said Mike Moha, the school district’s business manager. The district hopes to pass two more bonds over the next 12 years to finance the relocation of the high school and Warrenton Grade School.
“We think the community is understanding that this is the first phase” of the master campus, Moha said. “We’re not going to go out if the economic times aren’t right.”
Clatsop County is nearly finished with schematic designs to turn the former state-run North Coast Youth Correctional Facility into a 148-bed jail. Aspects of the project’s design will soon come before the Warrenton Planning Commission.
Tax rates seem high now but have been cut significantly since two statewide measures limited property taxes, Johnson said.
Measure 5, an amendment to the state constitution passed by voters in 1990, capped property tax rates for operations at $5 per $1,000 of assessed property value for schools and $10 per $1,000 of assessed property value for other governments. Measure 50, passed by voters in 1997, limited the increase in real estate assessments to 3% a year.
The measures have made general obligation bonds a necessity for taxing districts hoping to make any significant facility improvements, Johnson said.
Astoria has by far the highest tax rate in the county, with residents paying $19.41 per $1,000 of assessed property value this year. The rate is the highest point since at least a decade ago, but Johnson said it pales in comparison to before tax reform.
“Back in the 1990s, the tax rate (in Astoria) was $20 per thousand, up to $30 per thousand,” Johnson said. “That was pre-Measure 5 and Measure 50.”
The state Legislature is looking at how to reform the state’s property tax system. Detractors say that charging property owners based on capped assessed values, rather than real market values, creates significant disparities, even between similar properties.
State Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, spoke at the Oregon Coastal Caucus Economic Summit in August 2018 about how schools used to get two-thirds of their funding from property taxes. Without Measure 5 and Measure 50, the state would have $3.5 billion more in revenue, $2 billion of it going to schools, he said.
“That shows you the magnitude of what happened to this state in 1990,” Courtney said, according to an Oregon Capital Bureau story at the time. “We have never replaced that source of funding ... that is why we’re struggling so much.”