Can property taxes be cut?

If not, county must say why

If not, county must say why

February 07, 2008

Municipalities, fire/rescue companies and senior citizens are among the groups that will benefit from spending in Washington County's next budget.

Average citizens, on the other hand, probably will have to take action themselves if they want property tax relief. Most of the commissioners who spoke at Tuesday's "State of the County" breakfast seemed to rule out any cuts in the tax rate.

The commissioners have an argument to make that cutting the tax rate would be difficult this year, given the uncertainty about how much the state government will cut funds to the counties.

But instead of making that argument, most of them fingered the State Department of Assessments as the villain causing taxes to increase.


What nonsense. If assessments increase, the commissioners can reduce the property tax rate correspondingly, so that citizens' tax bills don't increase.

In fact, the state even calculates what the rate must be to bring in the same amount of money raised the prior year.

That's known as the "constant yield" rate and if the commissioners want to exceed it, they have to hold a public hearing and explain why.

Is there an explanation?

Yes, but whether it will satisfy people watching their assessments increase is unknown at this time.

It is project that the county's proposed budget for the next fiscal year is projected will increase by less than 1 percent, as compared to the more than 5 percent increase projected for the state budget.

County officials have already received word to expect a $300,000 cut in the local share of highway-user revenue. In some prior years, that fund has been cut by more than $1 million, so the bad news might get worse.

The 5 percent cap on assessment increases has already reduced county revenues by $5 million, even as the Washington County Public School system is submitting one of the largest capital budgets in its history.

It would be simpler if the county knew ahead of time what the state was going to do, but both governments' budget processes occur at roughly the same time.

That means county officials have to estimate (or, more realistically, guess) how much the state will send back to Washington County.

This explanation won't fit into a sound-bite in the way that "blame the state" does.

But to argue that assessors are responsible for rising tax bills isn't honest. The commissioners can cut the rate to compensate for those increases.

Whether they should is another question, but if they decide they can't make the cut, they should treat citizens as if they had some intelligence and explain why.

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