Monday, May 20, 2024

The property appraisal blame game

by Daily Inter Lake
| July 16, 2023 12:00 AM

If you darn near keeled over after opening your property appraisal notice this month, you’re not alone.

Property owners across the state were left flabbergasted after seeing their home values skyrocket, sometimes as much as double as the previous appraisal cycle two years ago. Residential property in Flathead County jumped on average about 45%. It’s even higher in Lincoln County, where the median increase was 59%.

Within these appraisal notices were estimated property tax payments for 2023 and 2024 that rightly left many confused and worried about whether they could afford to stay in their home. If property values doubled, so did the estimated taxes owed.

Not long after the tsunami of notices hit mailboxes, the spin machine ramped up.

Republicans, like Polson Sen. Greg Hertz, were quick to note that counties and schools bear the brunt of the blame if payments go up since local government coffers absorb much of property tax revenue.

On that account, he’s correct. Roughly half of the property tax revenue funds county governments and school districts. The state takes in 18% with municipalities getting around 11%. If property taxes are too high, Hertz contends, lobby your county commissioners and school boards to adjust their budgets.

“Also, as voters, you need to consider every levy you vote for, and keep in mind that if you vote yes, your taxes will increase,” Hertz wrote in his recent opinion article.

Democrats, meanwhile, rightly pointed out that the state Legislature had ample warning that this spike in appraisal values was coming, yet chose to do nothing about it. The state Department of Revenue explicitly told lawmakers that the two-year reappraisal cycle would significantly bump market values more than 40% across the state. In order to keep tax bills steady, the Legislature was advised to adjust the 1.35% residential tax rate down to 0.94%.

Instead of heeding that warning, the supermajority Republican Legislature took no action. The fallout from the appraisal notices falls at their feet.

As Kalispell Rep. Courtenay Sprunger stated at last week’s town hall on the appraisals, property owners need to contact their local lawmakers if they’re disappointed in the lack of foresight or response.

“We need to find a tax solution that also still makes sure your toilet flushes and the fire department will respond,” she said about the need to readdress Montana’s property taxes.

With Republicans adamant that a special session to rectify the matter is off the table, the ball is now in the hands of county commissioners, city council members and school board trustees.

When elected officials at cities, counties or school districts adopt their budgets they set the number of the mills they will assess. Given the new appraisal values, they could, and should, lower the number of mills assessed while keeping the revenue they collect the same.

They now hold the power to keep your tax bills steady. Let them know they need to hold the budgetary line.

State legislators should also continue listening to frustrated taxpayers, and remember their role in setting tax rates when they head back to Helena for the next legislative session.