The county agency charged with setting values on all the real estate on Hawaii Island and collecting the property taxes is undergoing a transformation that will bring it to unprecedented levels of professionalism, officials said Friday.
The transformation, which includes mandatory training of staff to international standards, periodic comparisons of how assessors are valuing individual parcels, new software, public outreach and an easier-to-use website, are among 40 changes recommended in a 99-page report by the International Association of Assessing Officers.
The county has already completed, or is well on its way to completing, 13 of the 40 recommendations, Hawaii County Finance Director Nancy Crawford, who oversees the Real Property Tax Division, told the Real Property Tax Stakeholder’s Task Force.
The task force itself was one of the recommendations in the March 2012 evaluation.
Crawford and Real Property Tax Administrator Stan Sitko cautioned the task force that there won’t be wholesale changes to the department, and said some of the recommendations are going to take at least three years to implement.
“We’re not at this time contemplating a full overhaul of our structure,” Crawford said.
The changes recommended in the report followed numerous complaints and a perception among the public and Hawaii County Council members that property assessments and thus taxes are not applied evenly across the island.
The assessing association seemed to agree: “Based on the limited information available to us, there is a remarkable variation in effective tax rates among similarly situated properties,” it said in the report.
Stewart Hussey, a longtime East Hawaii property appraiser and a member of the task force, said he was impressed with the thoroughness of the recommendations and was also impressed by how well the department handled the criticism leveled at it.
“When I first read the audit results and the county administration’s response, I was impressed by the lack of defensive posturing … I got the impression of a professional response,” Hussey said. “Amazing progress has been made toward the implementation of these recommendations. I think this is exciting; I think this is promising.”
There have been a few bumps in the road, however.
A plan to hire two analysts to help implement international standards has fallen short, when no qualified candidates applied. The county plans to lower some of the requirements to fill the positions, Sitko said.
Training existing staff adds to the budget, and not all employees pass. Sitko said the division is putting employees through a core curriculum that includes 30 hours of IAAO coursework and another 15 workshop hours. After that, he said, the staff will take classes in individual specialities such as geographic information systems or evaluating commercial property based on income. Each class costs about $175 per employee, he said.
Hawaii County has joined the three other counties to form a Hawaii IAAO chapter that hopes to recommend state certification standards for assessors.
Computer software systems will also add to the budget. The counties are working together to get an integrated computer system up that will contain all the property assessment data on a parcel, as well as map layers and income data.
“This is not going to be happening instantly,” Sitko said. “This is a three-year project and we are just starting this.”
Beginning much sooner — perhaps as early as next week — will be a new, more user-friendly website that will allow the public to look up more information on property, file complaints and retrieve and fill out forms.