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Longtime elected official Lloyd Hara retires, leaving legacy of property-data innovation

Lloyd Hara, who has held more local elective offices over a longer period of time than perhaps anyone in the history of the state, departs at the end of this month from the King County Assessor's office he has occupied for the past six years, likely bringing an end to a career in elective office dating back to 1969.

Lloyd Hara 
But as he turns the keys to the office over to John Arthur Wilson, the one-time aide who defeated him in the November General Election and will be sworn in January 3, he leaves a first-in-the-nation data legacy that will benefit residents, government and non-profits well into the future.

That data file, named LocalScape, was launched last March by Hara's office. He refers to the innovation, which amounts to a property data portal, as a "dynamic m apping tool designed to unleash the power of community data and redefine civic engagement" by layering local property tax value, tax data and census information.

Hara's 76th birthday was December 8 so, appropriately, King County Executive Dow Constantine and the King County Council proclaimed that day Lloyd Hara Day in the county.

And in a last holiday greeting to members of his staff, Hara thanked them for their role in the "nine national awards for innovation, customer service and leadership" that the office won from the national organization of assessors and other groups.

One of his innovations that he had to press for approval from the county's executive and council, was selling advertising on his department's website, which he viewed as adding a logical source of revenue, suggesting that every agency should be open to that idea.

Throughout his career, Hara was an official who genuinely enjoyed meeting his constituents, and thus established a tough standard for his successor.

He has logged more than 200 speaking engagements per year to service organization, real estate gatherings and town hall meetings, in addition to regular meetings with all 39 cities in the county and traveling to Olympia to meet with lawmakers on not only his department's issues, but also issues impacting the county.

As port commissioner, Hara chuckled at the sense that he had so many meetings out and around the county that he sometimes encountered people who didn't even know they were in the Seattle Port District.

Hara, then finishing his first term as a commissioner for the Poet of Seattle, was elected in 2009 to fill the unexpired term of King County Assessor Scott Noble, who resigned. He was subsequently elected, in 2011, to a full four-year term.

He thus undertook a role that made him, in essence, the "tax man" in the county since notices of taxes came from his office, although his office merely served to take the budget approved by the County Council and turn it into the tax per property parcel.

But throughout his years as assessor, Hara seemed always in quest of ways to lower property taxes, sometime stirring discussions with other elected officials, some of whom he sought to put out of business for taxpayer benefit.

One of his controversial suggestions sprang from his sense that regionalization that would involve consolidating functions of various elective offices may be a way that taxpayers in smaller counties may be better served, less expensively.

And he wondered aloud in one of our interviews a couple of years ago "how many jurisdictions should there be that taxpayers are helping support? Could some services be merged into regional units? Can some be privatized?"
It's out of the echo of such discussion Hara started that new ways of doing things at the local-government level may emerge as lawmakers and policymakers cope with new funding realities.

Hara told me that a family challenge, when his son, Todd, learned in August that he had a cancerous tumor in his kidney, put his 2015 re-election campaign in perspective. He said Todd's surgery a week before the election and his doctor's assessment that he was cancer free far outweighed the outcome of a political campaign.
Todd turned 42 on his birthday last week, three days after Lloyd's birthday. 

In fact, it was the second time that a family challenge came during a tight campaign, ironically, he says, in that they were during the two elections he lost.

The first was during his only run for statewide office, 1988, when his race for state treasurer was dimmed in importance by the death of his father.

The start of his career in elective office came for Hara, a graduate of Roosevelt High School and the University of Washington, in 1969 when he was appointed to the office of King County auditor, the youngest person to hold that office.

He was elected Seattle Treasurer in 1980 and served in that role until 1992, winning accolades from the Government Financial Officers Association, the Association of Government Accounts and the Municipal Treasurers Association of the U.S. and Canada, an organization he served as president for a term.

In addition to his elective offices, Hara founded the Asian Pacific American Municipal Officials, the Seattle International District Rotary, the North Seattle Community College Foundation and is past president of the Japanese American Citizens League, Seattle Chapter.

Hara is taking a few days vacation with his wife, Liz, and told me in an email that while he has not made any future commitments, he has "too much energy to simply retire," adding "life is good and there is life after politics."
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Hara takes taxpayer anger over property taxes as opportunity to deliver several messages

Meetings with property owners angry about their taxes might usually be viewed as an intimidating experience for the elected official responsible for determining the taxes, but King County Assessor Lloyd Hara sees such contacts as merely an opportunity to educate his "customers."  

Hara, who will be running for re-election next November though he hasn't formally announced, says he generally finds that the taxpayer anger or apprehension is the result of misunderstanding of how property taxes are determined. So in addition to correcting misperceptions, he looks forward to such sessions as an opportunity for him to offer a couple of key messages that he's been delivering for years.

Lloyd Hara 

The first of those messages for such audiences is an attention getter: if you think your property taxes are too high it may be your own fault.  

Hara doesn't actually tell taxpayers that if they think their property taxes are too high they may have themselves to blame. But he does routinely tell groups he speaks before that a third to a half of property taxes are from special levies, taxes approved by voters to impose additional taxes on themselves to pay for everything from parks to schools to emergency medical services.

"People have more control over their tax bill than they often realize," says Hara.

Hara, who was first elected assessor in 2009 to fill the unexpired term of the previous assessor, has held more appointive and elective offices locally over a longer period of time than likely anyone. He was first appointed King County Auditor in 1969 at the age of 29, youngest person ever to hold that post. In that role he achieved national recognition for his work on performance auditing of government agencies.

He was elected four times between 1980 and 1992 as Seattle City Treasurer, honored with national awards for his performance in that role.  

Then he was appointed head of the regional office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and, in 2005, was elected a commissioner of the Port of Seattle.

In his assessor role, Hara's department appraises all property in the county then places a value on each parcel and determines a tax per thousand dollars of value.

The information is then passed to the county treasurer, who proceeds to send out the tax bills to each property owner for the coming year.

Hara this month had a typical meeting with Bellevue residents who were upset because the values of their property had gone up dramatically and they were concerned about taxes going up in relation to value.

Hara explained that wasn't going to happen, noting that under state law, the total tax take in the county can't increase by more than 1 percent, although some individual property owners may, for several reasons, see their taxes go up more than others. And one of those reasons is special levies.

The average impact of special levies in Seattle is about 30 percent, Hara said, while in Bellevue special levies account for about 50 percent of the average residential property-tax tab. It's clear at some of Hara's taxpayer "customer" gatherings that the levy total is a shock to some listeners.

"Proposition 1, the ballot measure on parks, was a good example," Hara said. "Everyone loves parks. So do I. But they need to be looked at in terms of relative priority, as compared, for example, with public safety."

"Unfortunately, the capacity isn't there to do all things and if we just put up a single issue that's a high-visibility one, it can get approved by a big margin, as happened with the parks measure this summer," he added. "But if the voters had a package to choose from, that single issue might suddenly be less logical when viewed holistically."

"It' possible for something to be a good thing but yet not pass muster when looked at holistically," he said, praising the League of Women Voters for taking the broader view in opposing the parks measure, which will add as much as $148 per year for the average home in the county.

The second message Hara takes the opportunity to discuss with audiences, that government consolidation may reduce your tax bill, sparks little more than a yawn. But government reorganization needs to attract more attention from elected officials, and Hara's focus on the topic by discussing the issue with taxpayer audiences may help lead toward that greater legislative interest.

Hara has been a proponent of reorganizing government to create efficiency for taxpayers since, while working in the state budget office in the late 60s, he was involved in the effort to reorganize state government into what were characterized as "super agencies" that tried to consolidate agencies by program functions.

He's been a constant advocate since then of consolidating taxing districts, taking the view that regionalization, consolidating functions of various elective offices across local or even county boundaries, may be a way that taxpayers in smaller districts or counties may be better served.

Hara wonders "how many jurisdictions should there be that taxpayers are helping support? Could some services be merged into regional units? Can some be privatized?"

It's out of such discussions that new ways of doing things at the local-government level may emerge as lawmakers and policymakers cope with new funding realities.

The website for the Assessor's office has received recognition and it may include an unusual addition next year, for which Hara has passed the first hurdle, the funds being included King County executive Dow Constantine's budget. Now the King County Council must go along.

Hara, who says Chicago was the first city to put advertising on its property tax website, admits "certain officials thought it might look a bit cheesy," but he says "it doesn't make sense to overlook possible new sources of money," which he is initially estimating at a conservative $35,000 a year.

He's also seeking legislative approval again this coming session for the right to impose a fee on appeals of assessments by commercial property tax payers, which would help defray appeal costs for other taxpayers, who must foot the bill if they wish commence a challenge to their taxes.

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