Sunday, June 16, 2024

The truth about your home’s property tax increase

by Dennis M. Taylor
| November 26, 2023 12:00 AM

By now we all have seen our actual property tax increases.

We know how high our property taxes have gone up–not like the mystery when we got our confusing reappraisal notice.  Many of us are angry.  As we prepare to write an actual check for our home property taxes, we are livid.

The state reappraisal of all Montana homes for 2023 resulted in an average 49% increase statewide in home appraisals. Because of that appraisal many if not most of us will see a property tax increase on our home – and for some this increase is enormous.  

Folks who have owned their homes for 50 years tell me this never happened before. How did this happen?  

It irks me that Gov. Greg Gianforte and many of his Republican super-majority buddies in the Legislature tried to blame our local governments for that tax increase. Having worked as a leader in local governments from Billings to Bozeman, Helena to Missoula and up in Whitefish, I can tell you that is simply not true.

Because of the revenue caps imposed by state law, local government can only raise our property taxes a very small amount. They are limited to an increase of one-half the average rate of inflation during the last three years. At the most, they can only raise our local taxes by 2.46% this year. So, it wasn’t local government who raised our taxes.

This year, most all local governments adopted budgets that complied with the strict limits of state law. That required trimming costs and making hard choices among competing demands for services. Yet, most local governments kept our taxes down by actually lowering mill levies. Again, it wasn’t local government who raised our taxes.  

The blame for our higher homeowner property taxes lies squarely with Gianforte and the state Legislature. In the past, for 40 years or more, whenever home appraisals went sky-high, the governor and Legislature always lowered the “tax rate” to offset what would otherwise be a large increase in homeowner taxes. But this year, Gianforte and the Legislature chose not to lower the homeowner property tax rate, and as a result, raised property taxes for thousands upon thousands of Montana homeowners.  

Before the last Legislature even started, the governor’s own Department of Revenue, pursuant to law, alerted the legislature that the homeowner property tax rate needed to be lowered from 1.35% to 0.94% so that there would be no tax shock from the high reappraisals. Had the governor and the Legislature simply heeded that advice and done what had always been done before, home taxes would have remained essentially the same.  

The governor could have fixed the problem in a one-day special session to make the rate adjustment, but when that was suggested by Democratic state Senate leaders, the governor didn’t even respond to their letter.

Gianforte had other plans, putting the $81 million the state got from our increased home tax into his budget. And then his Legislature promptly spent it.  

Because the governor and Legislature didn’t lower the homeowner tax rate, nearly $200 million a year in permanent homeowner property taxes were shoveled onto our backs. During the next five years, if the governor is reelected, he will take almost $1 billion in new taxes from us.

The failure to act by the governor and the legislature triggered a $110 million tax shift away from industry and corporations onto Montana homeowners.  The big corporations, the pipelines, the transmission lines, the railroads, all got a big tax break from that shift while we got a staggering property tax increase. Homeowners’ share of all property taxes in Montana went up 6% this year alone (from 53% to 59%)–one of the largest tax shifts in our history. The legislature has been adding to our home tax burden for years. Our share used to be only one-third, now it is almost 60%.

If you’re as angry as I am about our permanent property tax increase, remember who caused it.  It was not caused by our local governments, it was Gianforte and his Republican supermajority legislature who stuck it to us.  

Vietnam Marine Corps combat veteran Dennis M. Taylor, of Helena, has been city manager of Billings and Helena, chief administrative officer of the city of Missoula, and interim city manager of Whitefish, Bozeman and Helena.