Lloyd Hara is the King County Assessor. The job of his office is to determine the value of property in the county. Each year the King County Assessor’s office values more than 700,000 properties.
Hara has had a 40-year career in Washington government. He was the first Asian American in many of the positions he filled, including King County Auditor, and one of the first Asians in almost 100 years to be Seattle City Treasurer and Seattle Port Commissioner. Hara has been Assessor since November 2009, and is just finishing his first regular term, which began in 2011 (he is seeking reelection).
Hara talked with the International Examiner about his background, political career, current issues in the city and county, and a tax rebate program that can save seniors in the county thousands of dollars.
Hara was joined by Phillip Sit, who also works in the King County Department of Assessments.
Money-saving exemption for seniors has an easier threshold
Hara’s office has been spreading awareness about a program that can save seniors, veterans, and disabled property owners in King County thousands of dollars.
Here’s how it works: Seniors 61 years or older, veterans, and those with disabilities who make $40,000 a year or less and own their own property may be able to receive a partial or full exemption in property taxes. The previous qualifying income was $35,000, but was raised after the Washington State Legislature passed a bill increasing it. This will increase the number of people who can enroll in the program.
“It’s been important to many folks that because their social security increased over the years, [they] were knocked out of the program. We want to make sure that folks in the community know that the program has changed, and also they may be eligible,” Hara said.
You can check your eligibility at www.kingcounty.gov/assessor or call (206) 296-3920. If you weren’t enrolled in the program, you may be able to receive tax exemption money from previous years.
Childhood in Seattle and the Midwest
Lloyd Hara: “I’m a third-generation Seattleite and I was born just prior to World War II, so I was a youngster, a little kid, when World War II started. We used to live in what is now probably the Central Area and as consequence at that time the ethnic communities lived fairly close together—the Japanese American population, the black population, the Chinese population and other early immigrants—Jewish population etc. in kind of enclaves.
“During World War II—the start of it obviously, December 7, 1941, and shortly thereafter—Executive Order 9066 came out. My father had a business and he decided what to do with his business, secondly, what to do because the order was that you had to evacuate the West Coast. And so my dad and my mom said they weren’t going to go to the internment or the U.S. concentration camps. So I was fortunate maybe in some regards they made that decision, because then we did not go to camp, and most people in Seattle went to Minidoka [Camp].
“We evacuated to Lincoln, Nebraska. My dad was very fortunate that he had a friend that was doing hypertension research at the University of Nebraska. He sponsored my father to be an assistant working with him. So I kind of grew up a few years in Lincoln and shortly after the war ended we moved to Evanston, Illinois.
“And so it was an interesting time to grow up because you’re kind of a little kid, five, six, seven years old and you’re kind of picked on. Being kind of the only Japanese American kid, you obviously look different than anyone else in the neighborhood. So as a consequence, my mother and my dad said, ‘Well, boy we can’t be there every moment to take you to school, bring you home etc. etc. So you got three choices. One, you take off and you run, number two, you kind of make more friends, or three, you stand up and fight.’ So you quickly learn to do all three, I guess.
“But on the other hand, it taught me some valuable lessons. You can quickly learn about social justice and equality, and it isn’t the same for everybody, clearly. And so that’s always stuck in my mind in dealing with that, and also I guess even coming back to Seattle.
“My dad had kind of an old saying. He said, ‘I’d rather not shovel the snow, I’d rather see the raindrops coming down.’ And so that’s why we moved back from the midwest—it got pretty bitterly cold. And so as a consequence we did come back to Seattle.”
On trying to bring diversity into government
Hara: “I still remember, I did start an organization called the Employment Opportunity Center which is not here anymore but was one of the first Pan-Asian organizations. I still remember folks saying, ‘If you’re Asian American you’re not a leader.’ And I said, huh? What’s the connection? We’ve got to change that whole image, because that’s wrong.
“I guess that’s kind of been my focus, is trying to encourage and mentor and to get folks out there so then they can step up, quite frankly, and make sure that injustices don’t continue on.
“You kind of still see remnants of this. Because I do think Seattle, even though we’ve come a long ways, we’re not totally enlightened yet in terms of total acceptance. And I think that’s one of the biggest fights that we continue to have. So that’s been one of my biggest charges, is to help others, to encourage others to be good role models.”
How he chose his government careers
Hara: “I was quite comfortable in Olympia working for the Governor. An opportunity came up in Seattle to become the King County Auditor, because the previous auditor resigned suddenly, and maybe through good fortune, they appointed me.
“I served in that and I said, ‘Gee, we’ve done a lot of new things,’ and the opportunity for Seattle City Treasurer came up, and in almost 100 years there had never been an ethnic minority that had ever served in that position, so we broke through there—same thing about auditor—there was no person of color ever elected to the position. Almost 100 years had gone by at the Port of Seattle. You would think that with the amount of trade as the Port of Seattle had done with Asia, you’d think you’d at least have a person of color, at least an Asian as one of its commissioners—no.
“I became the first to kind of break down some barriers, but also I thought it was an important statement to help us, trade-wise, to have a person of Asian ancestry as 95 percent of our trade goes to Asia. And then the same thing about this position. I was the very first elected person of color in this office.
“I think it’s been important at least to show the way, at least to give indications that yes, you can do it. Because you’ve got to have someone that does it, to say yeah it can be done, and build a confidence that you can do it.”
On the rise in housing prices in the region
Hara: “What’s happened in the county, during the recession—guess what happened? Were we building very many houses? No. So there has been a short supply, and then we’ve become the second fastest growing urban county in the country last year, and we have jobs galore, quite frankly. And there’s a close correlation between jobs and real estate values, and we’ve seen the impact of that. Now we know with the new construction that’s occurring that it will begin to take some of the pressure off and part of it is to get the balance between people that want to rent and the pent-up demand. So we’re working with all the cities on that.
“The thing that really strikes you is the amount of growth and activity that’s happened in King County—I mean it’s tremendous. I just came back from Indianapolis, Indiana for an international conference for assessing officers, and did I see a lot of cranes in the air? No. It keeps our office very very busy.”
On what makes a good assessor’s office
Hara: “Quite frankly we probably are the most transparent data assessor office. You go to other parts of the country and you don’t see all this information. My personal feeling is, I think it’s important that you the public has access to what we have. There’s no secrets. And I encourage people to make sure that they look at their property and if they see something that’s not correct, challenge us on it so we can make it correct. Coming back from the conference, a lot of other assessors are kind of blown away as to the information we provide to the public.”
Phillip Sit: “My friends, they originally asked me, why do you want to work for the assessor’s office, because it’s not exactly the most high profile, glamorous job. I worked in Olympia previously and before that I used to work in the ID. But I think what’s interesting is, our region’s growing so fast. No one has more of that facts and data than we do. And we help advise policy makers about what they’re going to recommend.
Look at the data the Assessor’s office uses with LocalScape, a mapping tool at localscape.property/#kingcountyassessor/.