Surplus County Property
This page provides an overview of state laws involved in the sale or disposal of surplus county property in Washington State, including statutory requirements, alternative local procedures, and examples of surplus resolutions.
Counties frequently need to sell or convey equipment or property that is no longer needed. The primary statutes concerning procedures for sale of surplus property are found in chapter 36.34 RCW. For the statutes covering leases of county property, refer to RCW 36.34.135 through 36.34.310.
This is a summary of the basic requirements concerning county sale of surplus property:
- The board of county commissioners has the authority to decide whether real or personal property owned by the county is surplus to the needs of the county (RCW 36.34.010).
- Notice of the intended sale must be published during two successive weeks in a legal newspaper of general circulation in the county, except (RCW 36.34.020):
- when selling to a governmental agency;
- when the county is trading in personal property upon the purchase of a like item;
- in the event of an emergency; or
- when the value of the property is less than $2,500.
- A public hearing is required prior to sale of surplus county property, unless the sale falls under one of the exceptions above (RCW 36.34.040).
- Written findings and a decision regarding whether to sell surplus property must be included in the commissioner's minutes following the public hearing (RCW 36.34.050).
- The commissioners can set a minimum sale price (RCW 36.34.050). If the county commissioners set a reasonable minimum price after determining the fair market value, the county can avoid violating Article VIII §7 of the state constitution, the "gift clause" (RCW 39.33.010).
- If the county wishes to sell timber, minerals, or other resources separate from the land that it owns, the county can do so by following the procedures set forth in Chapter 36.34 (RCW 36.34.010).
- Sales of personal property must be for cash except when the property is being transferred to a governmental agency, when the property is being traded in as part of the purchase of a similar item, or when a public auction sale is conducted through electronic media (RCW 36.34.060).
- There is a specific statute dealing with sales of used highway or other equipment: RCW 36.34.070.
- All sales must be through a public auction or a public auction sale by electronic media (or a privately operated consignment auction that is open to the public) or by sealed bids supervised by the county treasurer (RCW 36.34.080). Notice of the auction must be both published and posted in accordance with RCW 36.34.090 and RCW 36.34.100.
- The proceeds of the sale (except in trade-in situations) must be paid to the county treasurer, and title cannot be transferred until full payment is made (RCW 36.34.110).
- The proceeds of the sale of used equipment must be credited to the fund from which the original purchase was paid (RCW 36.34.120).
- Intergovernmental sales and transfers may be made by the county commissioners upon such terms and for such consideration as may be deemed adequate. Two separate statutes provide this authority: RCW 36.34.130 and RCW 36.34.010. Note that RCW 39.33.020 requires a public hearing if the value of the property to be transferred exceeds $50,000. RCW 39.33.020 also specifies the notice which must be given for the public hearing.
- Counties are authorized to exchange county real property for private real property of equal value. A superior court proceeding is required. See RCW 36.34.330 for details of the required court decree.
- Counties may transfer, lease, or dispose of property at low or no cost for affordable housing and related facilities for low-income and very low-income households consistent with local regulations and comprehensive plans. See RCW 39.33.015.
- 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 legislative authority 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.
As an alternative to the statutory procedures in 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).
Some counties have also established property management committees to provide recommendations to the board of county commissioners.
Below are selected examples of alternative property management procedures adopted by counties:
- Benton County Personal and Real Property Management Policy (2007)
- Clark County Code Ch. 2.33A – Property Management
- Douglas County Code Ch. 2.40 – Rules for Sale, Disposition or Lease of County Surplus Real Property
- Island County Code Ch. 2.31 – Sale or Lease of Surplus County Property
- King County Code Ch. 4.56 – Real and Personal Property
- Kitsap County Code Ch. 4.142 – Management of County Property
- Kittitas County Code Ch. 2.81 – Management of County Real and Personal Property
- Mason County Code Ch. 3.40 – Management and Disposition of Property
- San Juan County Ch. 2.104 – Property Management
- Whatcom County Code Ch. 1.10 – Procedures for Management and Disposition of County-Owned Personal and Real 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:
- Shoreline Municipal Code Sec. 3.50.010(D) – Authorizes city manager to donate items to bona fide charitable organizations if cost of disposition equals or exceeds current fair market value
- 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
Before disposing of surplus grant-funded property, the county 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).
When obtaining appraisals and valuation services, public agencies 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 board of county commissioners or county council) or responsible for administering the sale (the county executive/administrator or other administrative staff) 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.
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 agency 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.
Below are selected examples of resolutions declaring certain items to be surplus and authorizing their sale or disposal. We are in the process of updating this section and will be adding more examples soon.
Note: 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.
Surplus Real Property
- Mason County Resolution No. 2022-021 (2022) – Declares real property purchased for right-of-way easement for a now-canceled road project to be surplus and authorizes its sale back to the previous owner via direct negotiation, in accordance with county code
Tax Title Property
- Mason County Resolution No. 2020-109 (2020) – Authorizes sale of surplus 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
Vehicles, Equipment, and Other Personal Property
- 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.
- 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)
- 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