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With Home Prices Up More Than 50%, Some States Try to Contain Property Taxes

5 min read

For retirees Tom and Beverly McAdam, the good news is the value of their two-bedroom home in suburban Denver has risen 45% since they purchased it more than six years ago.

That’s also the bad news, costing them thousands more in real estate taxes and leaving less for discretionary spending.

“To pay the higher property taxes, it just means we’ve got to take more money out of our investments when it comes time to hit those big bills,” Beverly McAdam said.

She backs a Colorado ballot proposal that could cap the growth of property tax revenue. It’s one of several measures in states this year to limit, cut or offset escalating property taxes in response to complaints.

Over the past five years, single-family home prices have risen about 54% nationally, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.

That means higher tax bills for homeowners when governments don’t offset higher real estate values by reducing tax rates. And with offices seeing higher vacancies as people still work from home after the coronavirus pandemic, some commercial property values are declining, putting even more pressure on residential properties to deliver revenues.

“With assessed values skyrocketing over the past few years,” said Jared Walczak, vice president of state projects at the nonprofit Tax Foundation, “homeowners are clamoring for relief, and state policymakers are increasingly exploring ways to provide it.”

Colorado, like Alabama and Wyoming, also has a new law that will limit the growth in tax-assessed values for homeowners. Property tax relief will be part of a special legislative session beginning June 18 in Kansas, while Nebraska also could hold a special session to cut property taxes.

Georgia voters will decide in November whether to authorize a new law limiting increases in assessed home values for tax purposes to the rate of inflation, unless local governments or school boards opt out.

Five years ago, Lanell Griffith and her husband paid a little less than $2,700 in property taxes on their Topeka, Kansas, home in a historic neighborhood of tree-lined, brick streets. Their bill last year was more than $3,700.

“The government shouldn’t be able to arbitrarily just increase what they say you owe them without any sort of guardrails on that,” Griffith said.

Kansas lawmakers this year passed three measures that would have reduced the state’s property tax levy for public schools. But each was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly because of concerns about other sections to cut income taxes. The special session will mark a fourth attempt at consensus.

In Vermont, Republican Gov. Phil Scott has vowed to veto a bill that would raise property taxes by an average of nearly 14% to provide more money for public schools. Scott said people “simply cannot afford a historic, double digit property tax increase.”

In many states, property taxes are primarily a function of local governments such as counties, cities, school boards and special districts for libraries, fire departments and water systems. Each entity sets its own property tax rate, which is added to the others to come up with an overall tax bill for property owners.

State legislatures can intervene in a variety of ways. They can establish statewide limits on how much assessed property values can rise, create partial tax exemptions for all homeowners or provide income tax credits to help offset property taxes for certain people, such as those 65 and older.

But any relief carries consequences. Limits on the growth of assessed property values may provide a greater benefit to the wealthy. Exemptions for homes used as primary residences can shift a greater tax burden to rental properties and businesses.

“If you do this too much, you can now start tying the hands of your local government and cutting them off from the ability to raise revenue,” said Richard Auxier, a principal policy associate at the nonprofit Tax Policy Center.

While signing several property tax relief laws this year, Republican Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon vetoed one that would have exempted 25% of a home’s value from property taxes. He said it “jeopardized the financial stability of the state and counties.”

In 1982, voters in Muscogee County, Georgia, approved a local ordinance freezing assessed property values for homes used as primary residences. The result: longtime homeowners pay very little, newcomers pay more and businesses face some of the state’s highest property tax rates, said Suzanne Widenhouse, the county’s chief appraiser.

Last year, two similar homes worth around $330,000 had dramatically different tax bills. One, whose assessed value was frozen in the 1980s, owed less than $8. The other, whose assessed value was frozen when purchased about five years ago, owed $3,236, Widenhouse said.

“Anytime you grant an exemption, you create an inequality,” she said.

A Georgia ballot measure would amend the constitution to allow increases in assessed property values to be capped at the rate of inflation. But it wouldn’t undo past increases.

In the eight years since Rob Romeijn bought a ranch-style house on 10 acres (4 hectares) southeast of Atlanta, Rockdale County has raised the assessed value of his property from $127,000 to $230,000, also bumping up his property tax bill, he said.

As a Dutch immigrant with permanent residency, Romeijn can’t vote in elections in Conyers, but he was so unhappy about the increase that he made a sign urging people to vote out Rockdale’s commissioners and protested outside county offices in April.

Colorado also has been at the center of the property tax debate. The state has experienced decades-long growth in new residents, driving up demand for housing. Meanwhile, it has struggled to find a balance between providing tax relief for homeowners and sufficient funding for local governments.

A 1982 constitutional amendment limited residential properties to 45% of Colorado’s total property tax base while also setting a fixed assessment rate for commercial properties. To keep the ratio in balance as home values rose, residential tax assessments were cut, leaving less revenue for essential services such as fire districts.

Colorado voters repealed that constitutional provision in 2020. Since then, assessed home values have risen rapidly and the General Assembly has responded. The latest law, signed in May, is projected to shave over $1 billion annually off future property tax revenue by reducing tax rates and imposing growth limits.

But that’s not enough to satisfy some residents. The conservative group Advance Colorado backed a citizens initiative asking voters in November to cap all property tax revenue growth at 4% per year and is gathering signatures for still another ballot initiative to lower property taxes.

“People are saying this is too much growth; government doesn’t need this much money,” Advance Colorado President Michael Fields said. “People are genuinely scared of losing their houses.”

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