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Surplus County Property

This page provides an overview of the process for counties in Washington State to dispose of surplus real or personal property, including statutory requirements, alternative local procedures, tips, and examples of local policies and resolutions.

Important: Many counties have adopted alternative property management procedures under RCW 36.34.005 that may supersede some of the statutory requirements for surplus property. See the section on Alternative Surplus Procedures below and always consult your local policies.

For an overview of city and town surplus requirements, see our page Surplus City or Town Property. For special purpose districts, see our page Surplus Property for Special Purpose Districts.


Overview

Counties sometimes need to sell or otherwise dispose of equipment or property that is no longer needed for agency purposes. In order to do so, the county may need to officially declare the property “surplus” and follow certain requirements in state law or local policy.

There is a threshold question of what types of items need to be declared surplus. Items that are broken, obsolete, or of no monetary value would not necessarily need to be declared surplus before disposing of them, although some agencies do according to local policy. On the other hand, if there is any question of whether an item is usable or has value, it should be declared surplus.

In addition, it is a good idea to formally surplus anything that is part of an asset management system – even if it no longer has value – to document the fact that it is no longer in use. Real property should be declared surplus before being sold or conveyed and the same is true for timber and mineral rights.

Generally speaking, the laws governing county surplus property (contained largely within chapter 36.34 RCW) are stricter and more complicated than for cities or special purpose districts. However, counties are also authorized to adopt alternative property management procedures which can provide more flexibility (RCW 36.34.005). Either way, MRSC recommends adopting written surplus policies and procedures to guide your county. Such policies and procedures can be adopted by ordinance or resolution as a stand-alone policy or incorporated into broader financial management policies.


General Surplus Procedures and Practice Tips

Counties have quite a few specific statutory requirements as described later on this page, although a number of counties have adopted alternative procedures under RCW 36.34.005. Regardless, the general process we recommend for formally disposing of surplus property is similar:

Determine Which Property Is Surplus

This determination should be made by the appropriate staff and managers. Some local government agencies conduct periodic surveys or inventories to identify surplus property, while others identify surplus property on an as-needed basis. Note that RCW 36.32.210 requires the county governing body to file an annual inventory of all capitalized assets with the county auditor.

Be specific about which items are no longer needed and, if applicable, from which funds or departments. Document any relevant identifying information – for example, brands and model numbers, serial numbers, vehicle identification numbers (VINs), asset management tags, parcel numbers, and/or legal descriptions. Include any other useful information such as vehicle mileage, item location, equipment condition, etc.

Determine the Fair Market Value

Selling the property for less than its fair market value may be a violation of the “gift of public funds clause” in Article VIII, Sec. 7 of the Washington State Constitution, which states that “No county, city, town or other municipal corporation shall hereafter give any money, or property, or loan its money, or credit to or in aid of any individual, association, company or corporation, except for the necessary support of the poor and infirm…”

There are a number of ways to determine the property’s estimated market value, including (but not limited to) reviewing recent sales of similar items, Kelley Blue Book values, or county assessment records; contacting the manufacturer; or conducting a real estate market analysis or appraisal. Generally speaking, the more valuable the property, the more formal the appraisal or valuation should be.

The value estimate should not be provided by an individual or entity that has expressed interest in purchasing the property, which could result in the agency receiving less than fair market value.

Hold Public Hearing (If Required)

Under chapter 36.34 RCW, public notice and public hearings are required before surplusing most county property worth $2,500 or more. However, counties may adopt their own comprehensive property management procedures under RCW 36.34.005 that may provide for different public hearing requirements. These topics are discussed in more detail below; always refer to your local policies and the relevant state laws.

Adopt Surplus Resolution (Unless Authority is Delegated)

The county’s governing body – the board of county commissioners or county council – should declare the property to be surplus (along with the identifying information mentioned earlier) and specify how the property is to be disposed of or delegate that task to a particular administrative official according to local policy.

The resolution might also specify what to do with any items that are unable to be sold (such as declaring unsold items to have no value and authorizing them to be scrapped or donated to a particular organization). In some cases such as surplus real estate, the resolution might authorize further appraisal to confirm the property’s value.

An agency has the option of delegating some of its surplus authority to an appropriate administrative official, such as a department head or their designee. Such delegation is typically capped by the value of the property to be declared surplus. Any delegated authority should be adopted by policy, resolution, or ordinance, but the governing body would not need to approve the disposal of any surplus items below the delegation threshold.

Proceed With Sale or Disposal

Proceed with the sale or disposal in the manner determined by the county’s governing body, subject to any statutory or local policy limitations. In some cases further action may be required, such as the governing body’s approval of a purchase and sale agreement. Any proceeds should be deposited in the appropriate fund for each item. Note that certain agency staff or officials may be restricted from purchasing the property due to conflict of interest concerns as discussed later on this page.


Public Hearing Requirements

In many instances, state law requires counties to publish a notice of intention to sell the surplus property and hold a public hearing. However, the statutory wording is not entirely clear.

RCW 36.34.020 requires the county to publish a “notice of intention” to sell the property in a legal newspaper of general circulation in the county once per week for two successive weeks, except in the following situations:

  • When the value of the property is less than $2,500,
  • For trade-ins of personal property,
  • When the board of county commissioners adopts a resolution declaring an emergency to exist, or
  • When selling to a governmental agency. (However, note that chapter 39.33 RCW may still require public hearings for intergovernmental property transfers as described later on this page.)

RCW 36.34.030 requires the county to post a “notice of hearing” describing the property and designating the time and place of the public hearing, which must be posted in a conspicuous place in the county courthouse. The posting and the date of first publication must be at least 10 days before the hearing. Based on the statutory language, the “notice of intention” and “notice of hearing” appear to refer to the same document.

RCW 36.34.040 requires the board of county commissioners to hold a public hearing at the designated time in its usual place of business and admit evidence for and against the sale/disposal. Any taxpayer in person or by counsel may submit evidence and submit an argument, but the board may limit the number to three people per side.

Because RCW 36.34.040 requires a public hearing at the “date and hour fixed in the notice,” MRSC takes the position that a public hearing is not required for any property exempt from the notice of intention in RCW 36.34.020.

Within three days after the hearing, the board of county commissioners must make its findings and determination and enter them into its minutes (RCW 36.34.050). The board of commissioners may also set a minimum sale price for the property.

However, counties may adopt alternative surplus procedures as discussed below that might have less stringent public hearing requirements.

A separate state law, RCW 39.33.020, requires the state or a political subdivision to hold a public hearing before disposing of surplus property with an estimated value of $50,000 or more. However, AGO 1997 No. 5 concludes that this statute only applies to intergovernmental property transfers made pursuant to chapter 39.33 RCW. Under that reasoning, this statute would not apply to any non-governmental sales, auctions, etc.


Sale Methods (Auctions, Sealed Bids, Etc.)

RCW 36.34.080 requires all sales of county property ordered after a public hearing to be supervised by the county treasurer using one of the following methods:

  • A county or other government agency’s public auction, including an online auction under RCW 36.16.145;
  • A privately operated consignment auction that is open to the public; or
  • Sealed bid to the highest and best bidder.

All sales must meet or exceed the minimum sale price (if any) established by the board of county commissioners. The auction or request for sealed bids must be properly noticed as provided in RCW 36.34.090-.100.

Because this statute only applies to property requiring a hearing, our conclusion is that any property that does not require a public hearing (as discussed earlier) may be sold using other commercially reasonable methods and is not limited to auctions or sealed bids. Personal property trade-ins are also authorized by RCW 36.34.020 and exempted from public hearing requirements.

Counties may also adopt alternative surplus requirements as discussed below that might authorize additional methods of sale. Depending on the type of property involved, this could potentially include “for sale” ads, trade-ins, fleet management services, direct sale/negotiations, real estate brokers/agents, multiple listing services, requests for proposals (RFPs), etc.


Alternative Surplus Procedures

As an alternative to the statutory requirements of chapter 36.34 RCW, counties are authorized to adopt their own “comprehensive procedures for the management of county property consistent with the public interest,” which quite a few counties have done (RCW 36.34.005).

This potentially gives counties more flexibility in how to dispose of surplus property – including changing public hearing requirements, authorizing additional methods of sale other than auctions or sealed bids, or delegating a certain amount of authority to designated staff members or officials.

Some counties have also established property management committees to provide recommendations to the board of county commissioners.

However, even if a county has adopted alternative property management procedures, the county is still subject to any applicable statutes in other chapters outside of chapter 36.34 RCW, such as chapter 39.33 RCW concerning intergovernmental property transfers or chapter 36.35 RCW concerning tax title property.

Practice Tip: If your county adopts a comprehensive property management procedure under RCW 36.34.005, it is helpful to clearly cite that statute in the procedures and note that the procedures supersede the requirements of chapter 36.34 RCW, in order to avoid any potential uncertainty in the future.

Below are selected examples of alternative property management procedures adopted by counties:


Personal Property (Vehicles, Equipment, Etc.)

“Personal property” generally refers to anything other than real property (land and buildings). Common examples of surplus personal property include vehicles, computer equipment, tools, and office furniture.

RCW 36.34.060 requires all sales of personal property to be for cash (paid up-front) except for public online auctions under RCW 36.16.145, property transfers to another government agency, or trade-ins.

Used highway or other equipment belonging to the county or to any taxing division subject to its jurisdiction may be sold or traded in according to the requirements in RCW 36.34.070. For sale of crushed rock, gravel, or other road building materials not directly used or needed by the county, see RCW 36.82.100.

Counties must comply with any general statutory requirements regarding public hearings, methods of sale, intergovernmental property transfers, etc. and may adopt alternative surplus requirements under RCW 36.34.005, all discussed elsewhere on this page.


Real Property and Natural Resources

The board of county commissioners may sell any real property or portion of real property according to the requirements in RCW 36.34.010. (Tax title property has additional requirements discussed in the next section.) The county may reserve mineral rights in such land, in which case the property conveyance must include the reservation language provided in statute.

The county may also sell any timber, mineral, or other resources on any county-owned land separate and apart from the land, in the same manner and upon the same terms and conditions as the sale of real property.

The board of county commissioners also has authority to exchange county real property for privately owned real property of equal value if approved by the county superior court pursuant to the requirements of RCW 36.34.330.

Counties must comply with any general statutory requirements regarding public hearings, methods of sale, intergovernmental property transfers, etc. and may adopt alternative surplus requirements under RCW 36.34.005, all discussed elsewhere on this page.

Surplus Real Property for Affordable Housing

RCW 39.33.015 allows counties to transfer, lease, or dispose of surplus real property at low or no cost to a public, private, or nongovernmental body for affordable housing and related facilities. For more information and examples, see our page Affordable Housing Techniques and Incentives.

Public Disclosure

RCW 42.30.110(1)(c) allows the county’s governing body to discuss in executive session the minimum price at which it will sell a particular parcel of real estate if public knowledge regarding such consideration would cause a likelihood of decreased price. This statute allows the members of the governing body to provide negotiation direction and flexibility to the person delegated to sell the real property. However, the final action to sell or lease the property must be taken during a public meeting open session.

Similarly, RCW 42.56.260 exempts from public disclosure real estate appraisals or other documents prepared for the purpose of considering the minimum price of real estate to be offered for sale or lease if public knowledge would cause a likelihood of decreased price. However, these exemptions do not apply if disclosure is required by another statute, if the sale or lease has been completed, or if the sale or lease has been abandoned. No appraisal may be withheld for more than three years.


Tax Title Property

The disposal of tax title property (real property deeded to the county due to lack of bidders at a tax foreclosure sale) is governed by chapter 36.35 RCW. In general, tax title property must be disposed of through a bid process as set out in RCW 36.35.120.

However, tax title property may be disposed of through direct negotiation in certain situations established by RCW 36.35.150, including:

  • Sale to another governmental agency for a public purpose,
  • If the county governing body has determined it is not practical to build on the property due to its physical characteristics or legal restrictions,
  • If the property has an assessed value of less than $500 and is sold to an adjoining landowner, or
  • If no acceptable bids were received at an attempted public auction and the sale is made within 12 months from the date of the auction.

Park Property

RCW 36.68.010 authorizes any county to sell or lease park property, buildings, or facilities that are surplus to its needs or no longer suitable for park purposes. All funds from the lease or sale must be placed in the park and recreation fund to be used for capital purposes. No property that was acquired by condemnation for park or recreation purposes may be sold for at least five years after its acquisition.

Refer to information elsewhere on this page for specifics regarding surplus personal property, surplus real property, intergovernmental property transfers, methods of sale, etc.


Intergovernmental Property Transfers

RCW 36.34.130 authorizes counties to transfer property to and from other governmental agencies and acquire property from another governmental agency by private negotiation upon such terms and considerations as the governing body agrees to. Intergovernmental sales are exempted from the notice and public hearing requirements of RCW 36.34.020-.040.

In addition, chapter 39.33 RCW governs the intergovernmental disposition of property. In particular, RCW 39.33.010 allows any municipality or political subdivision to sell, transfer, exchange, lease, or otherwise dispose of real or personal property to other governmental entities – which includes any other municipality or political subdivision, any federally recognized Indian tribe, or the state or federal government – “on such terms and conditions as may be mutually agreed upon,” which permits the transfer of property for less than its fair market value.

The same statute also authorizes local jurisdictions to sell, transfer, exchange, lease, or otherwise dispose of personal property (but not weapons or real property) to a foreign entity.

However, RCW 43.09.210 requires that local governments receive the “true and full value” for all property transferred to another governmental entity. The state attorney general’s office has concluded that this statute can be harmonized with RCW 39.33.010 if the government agencies negotiate over the property’s value and that, depending on the nature of the property and circumstances of the transaction, “full value” can have a flexible meaning and could include non-monetary considerations. See AGO 1997 No. 5. (The statute has been updated since this opinion but not in a way that changes the logical conclusions.)

If the estimated value of the property being transferred to another government entity is more than $50,000, the county must hold a properly noticed public hearing prior to disposing of the property (RCW 39.33.020). If the agency does not substantially comply with those statutory procedures, the property transfer may be declared invalid by a court if a suit is filed within one year.


Surplus Firearms

Generally speaking, firearms purchased and used by a county sheriff’s office or corrections department may be sold or transferred like other personal property discussed earlier. However, there are some unique considerations that apply to such sales under state and federal law, and jurisdictions must make sure to comply with any local policies as well.

The considerations for counties are the same as for city law enforcement and corrections departments. For more information on these firearm-specific topics – including sale methods, background checks, transferring duty weapons to officers, and destruction of surplus firearms – see the Surplus Firearms section of our Surplus City or Town Property webpage.

For statutes regarding disposing of firearms that were seized and forfeited or are unclaimed in the hands of the county sheriff’s office, see the next section.


Seized, Forfeited, or Unclaimed Property

State law allows law enforcement agencies and courts to seize real or personal property in certain situations. If and when the forfeiture process is completed, the seizing agency is typically authorized to dispose of or sell the property, subject to restrictions.

These statutes contain detailed provisions regarding the seizure and forfeiture processes, property disposition, use of the proceeds, recordkeeping, and more, and local agencies will need to review them carefully.

In addition, state law provides for the sale or disposition of lost or unclaimed property if the owner cannot be located.

For example, see the following statutes (this is not an exhaustive list):


Donating Surplus Property

Generally, donating surplus property to a nonprofit organization or other entity is prohibited as a gift of public funds under the state constitution, unless specifically authorized by law (such as transferring real property for affordable housing or transferring property to another government entity for non-monetary considerations as discussed earlier).

However, if the recipient organization provides assistance to the “poor and infirm,” the donation could potentially be allowed under the constitutional exception for the “necessary support of the poor and infirm.” For more information on gifting of public funds generally, see our page Gift of Public Funds.

In addition, the property may likely be donated if the cost of selling or otherwise disposing of it would exceed the fair market value (in which case the agency is saving itself money by donating the property).

For policy examples, see:

  • San Juan County Code Sec. 2.104.060(C) – Surplus property agent may dispose of “worthless” personal property in most cost-efficient manner, subject to record-keeping requirements. If value at site is less than cost of hauling to another place of use or disposal, agent may donate property to other organizations in order of priority listed in code. Property may not be donated to county employees or members of their families.
  • Port of Port Angeles Delegation of Administrative Authority to Executive Director (2022) – Section XII(C) authorizes executive director to donate items to nonprofit or municipal/tribal government (or trash/recycle them) if director has been unable to sell them, or if estimated value is $200 or less and director determines expense of selling them would exceed any benefit received

Surplus Property Purchased with Grant Funds

Before disposing of surplus grant-funded property, the agency should consult the award documents and the granting agency to ensure that the sale or disposal is consistent with the granting agency’s requirements.

For information on disposing of property acquired or improved with federal grant funds, see 2 CFR 200 Subpart D, Post Federal Award Requirements – in (particular 2 CFR 200.313 (equipment), 2 CFR 200.311 (real property), and 2 CFR 200.314 (supplies).


Conflicts of Interest

When obtaining appraisals and valuation services, counties should make sure they are receiving independent and impartial opinions on value. Agencies should not obtain estimates or appraisals from individuals or entities who have expressed interest in purchasing the property, which could result in the agency receiving less than fair market value.

Agency officials who were involved in the decision to surplus the property (the governing body) or responsible for administering the sale (the county treasurer, county administrator, property manager, or other administrative staff/officials) should not purchase the surplus property due to conflict of interest concerns. See RCW 42.23.030; Washington’s common-law conflict of interest doctrine may also apply.

This prohibition also applies to the spouse and dependent children of anyone prohibited from purchasing by RCW 42.23.030. For more information, see our page on Ethics and Conflicts of Interest.

Although a sale at public auction or by sealed bids would seem to avoid direct conflict of interest issues, our conservative guidance has been to treat auction sales the same as direct sales and prohibit those individuals from submitting bids.

However, other county employees who were not involved in the decision to declare the property surplus are generally allowed to purchase surplus property, unless a local code or policy provides otherwise.


Examples of Surplus Resolutions

Below are selected examples of resolutions declaring certain items to be surplus and authorizing their sale or disposal. 

Many of these counties have adopted their own local procedures under RCW 36.34.005; make sure to follow the statutes and/or local procedures applicable to your county and the type of property you are surplusing.

Personal Property (Vehicles, Equipment, Etc.)

  • Grant County Resolution No. 22-024-CC (2022) – Simple resolution declares vehicles to be surplus and authorizes their disposal in accordance with RCW 36.34.080. Includes vehicle information, salvage value, and reason for surplus.
  • Jefferson County Resolution No. 22-16 (2022) – Declares sheriff’s office vehicle to be surplus and authorizes intergovernmental sale to city police department; establishes minimum sale price
  • Lewis County Resolution No. 23-230 (2023) – Declares listed computer equipment to be surplus and authorizes IT director to dispose of items in adherence with county code
  • Okanogan County Resolution No. 73-2018 (2018) – Authorizes sale of surplus vehicles/equipment for several departments; public hearing and legal notice were conducted in accordance with chapter 36.34 RCW. Items will be sold at county auction; unsold items with value under $250 will be disposed of in most cost-effective method
  • San Juan County Resolution No. 14-2021 (2021) – Authorizes sale of surplus vehicles through private online auction due to limited resale market within county; public hearing was held in accordance with county code. Includes vehicle information, mileage, fair market value, and salvage value (minimum sale price)
  • Stevens County Resolution No. 53-2021 (2021) – Declares several firearms from sheriff’s evidence building to be surplus and authorizes sale by sealed bids to federally licensed firearms dealers. Supersedes earlier resolution authorizing intergovernmental sale; also includes prior resolution setting public hearing date
  • Whatcom County Resolution No. 2021-038 (2021) – Authorizes sale of surplus vehicles and other equipment by public auction or sealed bid in accordance with county code; includes vehicle information as well as general descriptions of other obsolete or broken equipment

Surplus Real Property

  • ‚ÄčJefferson County Resolution No. 83-20 (2020) – Declares real property to be surplus and authorizes sale to public utility district in exchange for easement across nearby PUD property for public walking and biking trail; PUD will pay difference between property value and easement value. Includes staff report detailing property history and proposed sale
  • Mason County Resolution No. 2022-021 (2022) – Declares real property purchased for right-of-way easement for now-canceled road project to be surplus and authorizes sale back to previous owner via direct negotiation
  • Whatcom County Resolution No. 2018-030 (2018) – Declares real property to be surplus and authorizes sale by sealed bid. Sets minimum bid price of $5,000; uses property’s assessed value as estimated market value in accordance with county code for properties valued under $15,000

Tax Title Property

  • Okanogan County Resolution No. 75-2021 (2021) – Authorizes sale of tax title property at auction; establishes minimum bid price
  • Pierce County Resolution No. R2021-183 (2021) – Authorizes sale of multiple tax title properties, with some to be sold through public auction or private negotiation (Exhibit A) and others to be sold to other public agencies (Exhibit B)
  • Mason County Resolution No. 2020-109 (2020) – Authorizes sale of tax title property to local nonprofit via direct negotiation under RCW 36.35.150(1)(d), following attempt to sell the property at tax title auction less than 12 months earlier with no interested bidders

Examples of Surplus Bid Forms/Listings

Below are selected examples of county sealed bid forms; surplus property may also be disposed of through auctions and other methods authorized by state law or local policy, as discussed earlier on this page. A number of counties post surplus property opportunities on their websites and/or use third-party online auction services.


Last Modified: September 22, 2023