Wash Co. property tax break for spouses of fallen officers

The commissioners voted 4-1 on Tuesday for the exemption

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Washington County has joined the other Portland area counties in approving a partial property tax exemption for the surviving spouses of police officers and firefighters who die in the line of duty.

The commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday (Oct. 25) for the exemption, which Oregon lawmakers authorized counties to do earlier this year in Senate Bill 1513. Multnomah County did so in August, and Clackamas County on Oct. 6.

The exemption takes effect in the 2017-18 tax year.

It applies to the first $250,000 of assessed (taxable) value, and it would apply to all local governments in the county where the surviving spouse lives.

The exemption would still apply if the spouse lives in a different county from where the fallen officer or firefighter was employed, but it would no longer apply if the spouse remarries.

“There is a particular quotient of danger that comes with the work that fire service and police do,” Commissioner Dick Schouten said. “Those are categories that are particularly dangerous and put people in the line of fire. Fortunately, it does not happen often.”

According to the Oregon police and fire memorials at the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, which runs the public safety academy in Salem, 70 police officers and 55 firefighters have died since 1970. In the past two decades, 25 police officers and 30 firefighters have died.

The exemption can be invoked only by surviving spouses of police (including sheriff’s deputies) and firefighters employed by Oregon agencies. It includes reserve officers and volunteer firefighters, but not forest firefighters.

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Commissioners Roy Rogers and Bob Terry said those restrictions helped persuade them to support the exemption.

Rogers expressed concern about the property tax exemption available for veterans with disabilities and their surviving spouses. Oregon law provides for such exemptions, but they are about 10 percent of the public-safety officer exemption.

Commissioner Greg Malinowski said that given Washington County’s real estate market, a $250,000 exemption still would not shield a surviving spouse from all property taxes. Earlier this month, the county reported that the average assessed value of a residential property in 2016 was $252,294 — and the average real market value was $370,843.

Chairman Andy Duyck was the lone dissenter on the board vote.

“Any time we can do something for folks who are putting their lives on the line, it’s good to do so,” Duyck said.

“But at the same time, when I think through it — not so much with my heart, but with my head — I think if a garbageman got killed in the line of duty, the spouse is just as needy as one of a law officer. So I find it difficult to create a special exemption for a specific line of work. That is not in any way meant to denigrate the efforts of law enforcement officers, who are out there every day helping protect us.”

According to a 2016 tabulation by CareerCast — cross-referencing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Centers for Disease Control and others — firefighters ranked fifth and police seventh for most hazardous occupations. Construction workers topped that list.

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2014, police ranked 15th on its list of most dangerous occupations. Loggers topped that list.

“It’s a hard job you take, you do take the job voluntarily, you put a lot on the line, and sometimes you put part of your family on the line, too,” Malinowski said. “So I am in favor.”