Senior citizens in Massachusetts who don't want to spend their golden years greeting shoppers at the local discount store can find late-life alternatives in the public sector. Starting this summer, about 50 Bay State municipalities put them to work taking tickets at high school football games, reshelving books at libraries and helping to sort paperwork in city hall. It's not the usual voluntarism associated with "giving back to the community," though. These seniors are earning credit--up to $500 a year--against their property-tax bills.
It's one small break among many that seniors all across the country are getting. And they aren't the only ones. As assessments of residential properties have shot up by double-digit percentages in recent years, states and localities are giving every break they can think of to ameliorate homeowners' tax burdens. Even as receipts from sales, income and capital-gains taxes plummet in many states, it's clear that soaring home values aren't going to translate anytime soon into a source that can make up for revenue deficiencies in those other areas.
Property taxes remain about as unpopular as when the vogue for cutting them struck in California with Proposition 13 in 1978, so politicians continue to bend over backwards to alleviate their bite. Rising property values translate into higher property-tax burdens only where there's the political will to raise levies. "The state has a $300 million budget shortfall, but that hasn't stopped a half-dozen property-tax-freeze proposals," says Harry Kennedy, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in Missouri.
For a decade, Cook County, Illinois, has had a mandated property-tax rate limitation tied to the national rate of inflation. In July, the county's Board of Commissioners decided that limit wasn't generous enough and provided an additional break to residents who have owned their homes for 10 years or more. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley still felt it necessary several weeks later to open a first-floor City Hall tax-assistance center to help angry homeowners appeal their property- tax bills.
More often, property-tax relief is imposed from above, with states dictating to localities what they can and cannot collect. Twenty-two states have "truth in taxation" laws, which block local governments from raising the total amount of property taxes they collect from one year to the next. Even if assessed values have shot up, town councils or county governments in those states have to cast a vote to increase their total haul and then advertise that action in the newspaper. Depending on the state, cities and counties can raise their total haul of property taxes to take into account inflation and new construction. However, localities are often required to lower the tax rates on existing, unimproved homes if the assessed value has increased, keeping the actual tax bill steady. "With the increases in values that we're experiencing and the fact that we're capped over the entire year, it's really become a situation where people's taxes are becoming relatively constant," says Ben White, Denver's chief appraiser.
Some localities are reticent even about establishing those higher assessed values. New Jersey's attorney general sued eight cities this year for having failed to perform revaluations for more than a decade. Paterson, New Jersey, hasn't done a reassessment since 1972, dropping its assessed property value to less than 20 percent of the market value. In Indiana, the state is undergoing a major reassessment project that will bring the book values of residential properties in line with the market. Assessed values have long been artificially deflated; they're now expected to jump by more than a third. But state lawmakers are already moving to minimize the impact of the new values. "Our goal is, yes, to collect property taxes to pay government bills, but it's not to put people out of their homes," says state Representative Peggy Welch. "My message to the public has been: Don't panic."
Politicians' fears of taxpayer revolt run especially strong in states that allow citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives. Property-tax cuts are perennial fixtures on many Western states' ballots. Voters in Washington State are expected in November to approve the second property-tax limitation initiative in three years. (The 1999 version was thrown out by the courts.) "When you own your own home, especially over a multiple-year period, your income isn't making double-digit increases," says Tim Eyman, sponsor of the Washington initiatives. "When your property taxes increase faster than your income increases, only rich people can afford to buy a home."
Such populist complaints about the property tax may score points in debates, but in some ways they are also misleading. Property taxes are determined by a complicated formula, but the simple fact is that many states have put all kinds of brakes in place to assure that property- tax bills do not rise as fast as property values. Much residential property-tax relief shifts a good deal of the burden from homeowners to commercial and industrial property. In Colorado, limitations to residential property tax increases has meant that homes and condos are now assessed for tax purposes at 8.9 percent of their market value, while commercial property is assessed at 29 percent.
When commercial property owners aren't forced to pick up the slack, that obviously adds up to less money available for government services--most notably schools. Oregon voters have approved a series of tax-relief measures in recent years, including a limitation on property-tax increases to 3 percent a year. Because the state must make up the shortfall in revenues that localities would have received, the burden of underwriting schools has shifted from the local to the state level. A few years ago, the state picked up only about a third of the cost of elementary and secondary education. Now, it pays more than 70 percent, and K-12 education eats up 43 percent of the state's budget. "Of course, every dollar that the state now spends on what were local property-tax-funded schools," says Oregon state Representative Lane Shetterly, "is money the state does not have for public safety, health, corrections and all the things that we have historically spent general funds on."
That kind of broad listing of services doesn't win popular applause. Voters who have been hearing for years about state surpluses aren't eager to pony up more tax dollars to hand to the state. Instead, having grown used to cuts in income taxes and other levies in so many states, voters want their property taxes cut, too. That is the political dynamic that makes it hard to turn major reassessments into fresh revenues. Since assessments generally occur only every couple of years or so, the values they measure tend to lag. The economy may be hurting now, but this year's assessments reflect the latter part of the 1990s boom. This accounts for the unhappy perception that even when times are bad, property taxes are going up.
Property taxes are disliked for other reasons, including their implementation. Many homeowners have their property-tax bill fairly well hidden as part of their monthly mortgage payment, but there are still plenty of localities that collect the tax directly on an annual or semi-annual basis. Sales and income taxes almost invariably cost individuals more per year than property taxes, but writing out a check for $1,000 takes a much bigger psychological toll than the pennies that sales taxes add to each purchase. Property taxes are also the only ones that go up regardless of income, divorced from an individual's ability to pay.
For citizens to approve of higher property taxes, they want to know specifically what they are getting. Many successful appeals have been made to fund schools. Although Arizona voters and the legislature have been active in approving property-tax cuts on the ballot for the past two decades, they have seen both their rates and their bills rise, largely because of voter approval of bonds and school funding. San Jose voters last fall approved $440 million worth of property-tax increases to pay for parks and libraries, even with a two-thirds supermajority requirement for passage of the two separate initiatives.
City commissioners in Decatur, Georgia, have long bowed to the political reality that residents don't want to pay more in property taxes. Although home values in the Atlanta suburb have shot up an average of 96 percent since 1996, over that same period the city commission limited property tax increases to the rate of inflation-- about 4 percent annually. This year, however, faced with rising medical and other personnel costs, the commission approved an 11 percent general rate hike and also imposed a new $485,000 capital improvement assessment. Those were risky moves politically, and the commission balked at the hike that was originally proposed, which was substantially higher. "People hate the property tax. They hate it for a lot of reasons," says Decatur City Manager Peggy Merriss. "If the government waited all year long and made you turn in your receipts and write them a check for your sales tax, they'd hate that, too."