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PROPERTY TAX MESS OFFERS NO EASY OR CLEAN SOLUTIONS

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Salt Lake County commissioners promised Tuesday to roll back most of the assessed values assigned last year to homes in the Holladay-Cottonwood area. The result would be lower taxes for folks who experienced dramatic increases last year.

That is a nice, popular thing for politicians to promise, especially during an election year. However, the rollback won't happen. The State Tax Commission already has said as much.In a letter last week to the county, tax commissioners said a rollback would harm the integrity of the property tax system, which requires property owners to pay based on the fair-market value of their property. The county assessor would have to prove that land values have dropped during the past year in Holladay-Cottonwood, and that would be impossible.

All of which leaves the county in a quandary. If it continues to reassess property on a five-year cycle, as required by law, it will incur the wrath of thousands more residents each year. Already, County Assessor Bob Yates has decided to withhold the reappraisals he did in Sandy, Draper and Midvale this year. He found that the average property in those areas had appreciated 80 percent.

Unfortunately, the county's current method of collecting property taxes doesn't lend itself to a booming economy. Rapidly rising property rates accentuate the system's inherent inequities.

The county reappraises one-fifth of its residents every year. Areas that happen to be reappraised during a year of rapid real estate inflation will suffer disproportionate tax increases.

The ideal solution is to reappraise everyone at once. State law prohibits local governments from reaping windfalls. That means rising land values can't translate into rising government revenue. When values rise, tax rates must drop. But the only way this equalizing formula works is when all appreciating properties are considered at once.

To do this, the county could create a simple mathematical formula so the assessor can recalculate all values based on recent sales prices. This would be guesswork, but if done simultaneously with the current on-sight appraisal system the inequities could be minimized.

Another alternative would be to hire enough appraisers to re-examine all the property all at once.

County commissioners came up with a third solution. They will ask state lawmakers to find ways to halt what they perceive as a recent shift in the tax burden from commercial to residential properties - a shift due largely to rising property values.

Unfortunately, none of these solutions can give politicians what they want - a thoroughly happy and satisfied electorate. Property values are rising rapidly. Tax burdens inevitably will become greater for people who live in the most expensive homes.

Short of scrapping property taxes all together, the county can do little other than weather the storm.