Benton County assessor plans to step down

Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldMarch 1, 2014 

A new leader will helm the Benton County Assessor's Office next year, no matter the results of this fall's election.

Barbara Wagner, one of Benton County's longest-serving elected officials, announced Friday in an interview with the Herald that she won't seek re-election to a seventh term.

"I just need a change. I'm not sure what the change is going to be," she said.

Wagner, 61, of Kennewick, might take a break and travel, or perhaps seek another office at some point, she said.

She took office as assessor in 1991, after 15 years with the department as an appraiser. Her background gave her expertise and insight, and she'd like to see someone from the department run to replace her, she said.

The filing period is in May. So far, one person -- Mary Phillips, the county's geographic information systems manager -- has announced plans to seek the post.

The primary responsibility of the assessor's office is to establish property values, which are used to calculate property taxes. When Wagner took office, the total assessed value of property in the county was about $3 billion. This year, it's almost $16 billion.

Claude Oliver, a former Benton County treasurer and commissioner, described Wagner as dedicated and tenacious. He ranks her among the best public servants he worked with in his government career, he said.

"I have the highest regard for her," he said.

Wagner also earned praise from Debra Antes, the Walla Walla County assessor.

Antes spent eight years working for Wagner in Benton County, and "she taught me a lot (about) being a boss and the importance of not only being knowledgeable but also being both fair and fun," Antes said.

She added that Wagner encouraged her when she became Walla Walla County's assessor, and she'll be missed by colleagues around the state.

Wagner's tenure as assessor has seen controversy, from a wrongful termination claim made by a former assessor's employee that resulted in a $300,000 settlement, to a series of facilities complaints raised by Wagner and assessor's employees.

Wagner said she's tried to advocate for staffers and to run an office where taxpayers are treated fairly and impartially.

She's a former president of a statewide county assessor's association and the Washington Association of County Officials.

She listed helping bring PETT and PILT dollars into the county from the Department of Energy as top accomplishments during her tenure. The almost $6 million PETT (payment equivalent to taxes) settlement was for taxes not paid on a research project, and the yearly payment in lieu of taxes, or PILT, is for Hanford land taken off the tax rolls. Wagner also helped established a greater assessment discount statewide for the lowest-income seniors, she said, noting the effort was inspired by an interaction she had with a local senior.

Wagner first took office as a Democrat, but she switched to the Republican Party in 2002, saying its platform better aligned with her Catholic faith and values.

Wagner didn't always have her eye on becoming an assessor. An athlete growing up, she at one time planned to become a physical education teacher. She moved to the Tri-Cities in 1975 and worked for a time as a real estate agent before joining the assessor's office as an appraiser.

It will be tough saying goodbye, she said, noting she'll miss the camaraderie with staff and other assessors around Washington.

She said she's grateful to voters, who have kept her as their assessor for more than two decades. "I'm so thankful they did entrust me with it," she said.

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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