Friday, July 19, 2024

There is a way for Montana residential property taxes to go down

The upcoming property tax year could be a little easier on homeowners and renters than last year.

The operative word in that sentence is could. Here’s why this year could be easier, not a slam-dunk “will be easier.”

Three policy-generated numbers mathematically merge in a complex equation to determine what you pay in property taxes: 1) the state’s assessed value of your property; 2) the state’s tax rate applied to your property; and 3) every city and county’s total ask in taxes for the year (for the sake of simplicity, schools won’t be part of this particular explanation).

Cities and counties determine the size of the property tax pie (No. 3); state policy determines the size of your slice (Nos. 1 and 2). State law already caps how much cities and counties can increase the size of the pie, with a few exceptions falling outside of that cap, including voted bonds and levies and new properties that have come online in the last year.

2024 is not a reappraisal year, so the value of your home will not go up, for tax purposes. The Legislature also won’t meet this year, so the residential property rate will remain at 1.35%. So, for many jurisdictions across the state, if there are no voted bonds or levies, residential property taxes should only increase by the statutorily mandated one-half of the 3-year average of inflation. That should be the case, but it won’t be. Given that the tax pie is finite, if one piece gets smaller, another must get bigger.

There are 16 classifications of property, each with a different appraisal method and tax rate. The centrally assessed tax classification (telecoms, railroads, pipelines, airlines and NorthWestern Energy) appeal their valuations every year, regardless of where we are in the re-appraisal cycle. This process is underway, and they had until June 20 to submit their protests. These industries have deployed fleets of attorneys to Helena to contest their valuations. These negotiations happen behind closed doors and are always successful in reducing values for these industries.

This dramatically affects residential property taxpayers. When corporations in these industries successfully argue for a reduction in their value, they reduce the taxes they pay and increase yours. When the national telecoms, railroads, airlines, pipelines and NorthWestern Energy get a tax break in Montana, the size of their piece of the property tax pie gets smaller. That means someone else’s piece necessarily gets bigger – yours. When these corporations’ property taxes go down, yours go up. Residential taxpayers cover the costs of tax breaks for the centrally assessed industries. Even if cities’ and counties’ total tax levies remain the same this year, the state granting a reduction in value for centrally assessed property will make residential property taxes go up.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

If the centrally assessed industries were to acknowledge the massive property tax gut punch for homeowners and renters in 2023 and just sit out this round of appeals, that could really help your 2024 property taxes. For many of these national corporations, Montana is a tiny piece of their market. These reductions won’t matter much for them, but the property tax increases for Montanans sure will.

National telecoms, railroads, pipelines, airlines and NorthWestern Energy should just say no when it comes to appealing their respective valuations. The Montana employees and customers who need to afford to live here deserve your consideration more than your shareholders.

That’s not the only way to avoid this situation, though. If the Department of Revenue, at the direction of the governor, didn’t cave during these negotiations but instead stood tall for homeowners and renters and didn’t reduce these valuations, that could keep your property taxes down.

The state’s Property Tax Task Force is meeting now. Productive property tax conversations are happening in interim legislative committees and across the state. But 2025 is a long way off in terms of relief. Things could be better this year. National telecoms, railroads, airlines, pipelines and NorthWestern Energy should not appeal their valuations. And if they do, the Department of Revenue should make the negotiations public.

That actually would help.

Missoula County Commissioners Dave Strohmaier, Juanita Vero and Josh Slotnick.