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PROPERTY-TAX NEWS MAKES UTAH’S LEGISLATORS SWEAT

SHARE PROPERTY-TAX NEWS MAKES UTAH’S LEGISLATORS SWEAT

When paying your property taxes the end of each November, whom do you hate most? Your county commissioner? How about your city council member or school board member? Do you think evil thoughts about your legislator?

Whom to blame as property taxes rise and rise and rise worries politicians as voters tend to use the shotgun approach rather than the sharp-shooter's rifle - preferring to hit as many incumbents in the voting booth as possible.Utah legislators were so concerned last year about rising property taxes they formed a special task force to examine the problem. One lawmaker, Rep. Ray Short, R-Holladay, even advocated doing away with the tax altogether. He pulled back from that somewhat after examining how much other taxes - like the sales tax - would have to increase to pay for schools and local government.

Monday's announcement by the State Tax Commission that residential property values in 25 of the state's 29 counties must be increased for taxing purposes to make taxes fair across the state just further stresses legislators.

"If we (in the Legislature) do nothing (in the 1995 session), then it's likely (residential property) taxes will go way up," in populated counties across the state, says Rep. John Valentine, R-Orem, the House's co-chairman of the powerful joint budget committee.

"But we're not just going to do nothing. We'll do something." Whether that "something" will be enough to offset some big tax hikes remains to be seen.

And in all fairness, it's not really the responsibility of legislators to control rising property taxes - for they set just one property tax levy, that of the Uniform School Fund.

Galloping real estate prices, now cooling a bit in Utah, are the main cause.

The Utah Constitution requires that property be taxed "at a uniform and equal rate in proportion to its value." That means taxed at fair market value, and therein lies the problem - how do county assessors determine "fair market value" for thousands to hundreds of thousands of parcels of land and buildings each year?

Salt Lake County used to appraise each house on a five-year rotating schedule. But different parts of the county increased in value faster than others. Ask Holladay residents what they think about that system - for in 1994 some Holladay homes' taxes jumped upward of 300 percent.

So lawmakers passed a law saying the State Tax Commission would look at broad property increases across each county every year and issue "factoring orders" requiring increases (or in rare cases, decreases) to county officials according to how well they've kept up in reappraisals.

Those "factoring orders" for 1995 were released Monday and the news isn't good. They vary from 20 percent increases across Utah County to 22 percent to 27 percent in Salt Lake County to 48 percent for some older Davis County homes.

Local government officials have to follow the state's Truth in Taxation laws - and either lower property tax rates to offset increases in value or hold public hearings if they take more tax from property owners.

Valentine knows what's coming. "We as legislators aren't going to blame local officials for any jumps in property tax (in 1995)." But legislators - who face angry property owners every two years in election - aren't going to sit idly by, either, and take the buckshot.

Valentine sees three proposals in the 1995 session:

- Require "factoring" every year by counties and on-site reappraisals at least every five years so "inflation catch-up" tax hikes aren't on the scale that Holladay residents saw this year.

- Increase the constitutionally allowed discount for primary residential homes from the current 31 percent to some higher number. (The Constitution allows up to a 45 percent discount on assessments on primary residential homes.)

- Apply Truth in Taxation to the Legislature-mandated Uniform School Fund property tax and to a special property tax collection fee. Both are now exempt from Truth in Taxation's leveling requirements and result in automatic tax hikes to property owners in years of reappraisal.

"I think you will see us do two things (to offset - but not eliminate) residential property tax increases next year," says Valentine. Lawmakers will likely increase the homeowner exemption from its current 31 percent of fair market value. That will shift the property tax burden from primary homeowners to businesses and people who own second, recreational houses, bringing with it plenty of complaints on its own.

But, also, lawmakers will likely lower the Uniform School Fund's property tax levy, says Valentine. That would lower taxes on all property owners, he adds.

Whether raising the homeowner exemption and lowering the school fund rate will be enough to stop residential property tax hikes in the face of 20 percent to 48 percent value hikes as ordered by the Tax Commission is another matter.

"Doing those two things - assuming local governments and school districts lower their rates - will help. But they don't solve the fundamental problem with property taxes," says Valentine. "Just because someone's home increases in value doesn't mean they have more money in their pockets to pay higher taxes. Really, the property tax has little to do with a person's ability to pay" - especially older Utahns who bought a $25,000 home in 1960 only to see it valued at $150,000 in 1995.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, wants to attack Valentine's main problem - the homeowners' ability to pay - at least as far as the state is concerned.

"I want to take the Uniform School Fund out of property taxes completely - find another source (of tax revenue). Then if a $100,000 house in Bountiful is only assessed at $80,000, that homeowner isn't benefiting at the expense of the $100,000 homeowner in Salt Lake whose house is assessed at $100,000. The Davis County assessor (by not assessing fully) is only hurting his own government, not the state's education fund where it is only fair that property is assessed equally across the state," says Hillyard.

Hillyard is toying with the idea of a gross receipts tax to raise money for the Uniform School Fund, which is used to provide a basic amount to educate each child in the public schools. But that means fighting big businesses in Utah, who would be taxed on the value of what they produce, not on their profits or other criteria now used in business taxation.

State-assessed property owners, like a steel or copper company, would hate that. Now, state-assessed properties pay property tax based on how much money they make in using their property. If they were taxed on gross receipts, not profit, they would likely pick up a bigger piece of the overall tax pie.