The worries that homeowner property taxes are going up because of a state Tax Commission ruling may be a bit premature.

In fact, depending on where you own property, the impact of the commission's "intangible" ruling may have little effect on you but a bigger effect on your local property-taxing entities - like schools, county government or special improvement districts.Bill Asplund, deputy director of the Legislature's research arm and an expert on property taxation, says that a number of taxing entities are now near or at their state-law-mandated maximum tax rates.

That means even if the commission's ruling lowers assessments on big businesses - thus shifting tax burdens to homeowners and small businessmen - the taxing entities can't raise rates high enough on homeowners to make up the difference.

As Emery County Assessor Jim Fauver puts it: "In those cases, the local governments or schools just have to eat" the drop in tax revenue.

Tax Commission Chairman Val Oveson says in most counties along the Wasatch Front the impact of the decision is "minimal" because by far most of the property tax is generated from homes, apartments and small businesses, not big centrally assessed businesses like mines, railroads and electrical generating plants.

No one knows now - and won't know until at least mid-June - what the commission's ruling means in dollars to local governments.

The commission ruled that "intangible" property assets - things like stock, trade names, patents, credit, franchises and goodwill - can no longer be considered in setting property assessments for centrally assessed businesses. Centrally assessed businesses are firms whose property crosses county lines, like mines, railroads, telephone companies and so on.

For years, centrally assessed firms have complained that they are taxed too high compared to homes and small businesses. In the 1980s and '90s, a number of such firms routinely protested their tax assessments before the Tax Commission. Some have even gone to court.

Oveson admits that Utah taxes centrally assessed properties "at 20 percent to 40 percent more" than similar operations in other states. "There are some good reasons for this, but the number one reason is that we have aggressively taxed intangibles on centrally assessed properties," Oveson said.

By June 1, centrally assessed businesses must formally file any property tax appeals before the commission. Then, said Asplund and Fauver, the state will have some kind of idea of the value of "intangibles" sought in tax relief.

Some centrally assessed firms, like telecommunications companies, have a significant percent of intangibles in their property tax mix. The tax burdens of other firms have less of the intangible mix.

In addition, some counties, like Davis, have little centrallyassessed value compared to homes and small businesses, and impact there will be minimal. Other counties, like Emery, see the lion's share of their property taxes coming from centrally assessed property.

Fauver said, "More than 90 percent of assessed valuation in Emery County comes from centrally assessed businesses. Some of our taxing entities have room (under the legal cap) to raise their property tax rates, although probably not enough to capture all the lost revenue. Others are near the top of their legal rate limit, so can't get much (money). If a solution isn't found, they will just have to eat the lost money through program or ser-vice reductions."

Fauver sees an out, however. He said he's already received a "preliminary" legal opinion that says the Tax Commission's "intangible" ruling is so broad that it could include homeowners and small business owners.

"The commission says intangibles can't be used" in assessing. "OK, how about real estate agent fees, mortgage closing costs and other `intangibles' that homeowners face. Those should be taken into account as well, and the homeowner's assessments reduced" accordingly, said Fauver.

Lower the assessments on homes and small businesses, as well as centrally assessed properties, and, like water in connected buckets, the property tax assessments seek more equal levels. If there's room to raise rates to bring in about the same money - no real tax increase on anyone - this solution works well. But for taxing entities near their legal rate caps, they'd still fall short of revenue.

But Oveson disagrees with Fauver's reading of the situation. "Another part of the Utah code specifically says that things like real estate fees and closing costs can't be considered `intangible' costs. That means to me they can't be considered. Anyway, our decision only dealt with centrally assessed intangibles and shouldn't be expanded to cover locally assessed properties" like homes and small businesses, said Oveson.

Several years ago, in a complicated ruling, the Tax Commission said that a 20 percent discount given homeowners for "intangibles" - which wasn't given to centrally assessed properties - was wrong. The Legislature fixed that by increasing a special homeowner exemption and placing a special tax on centrally-assessed property owners.

Unfortunately, the special homeowner exemption has been pushed to the 45 percent constitutional limit. It can't be used to fix the new "intangible" property tax shift.

But Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful, says there may be other administrative remedies to solve the current problem short of calling a special legislative session. "If we can't find (an administrative) solution, then my guess is we will have to have a special session to change law," Beattie said this week.

"We haven't worked out any specific solutions yet," says Asplund. "We first have to find out the extent of the problem. And we won't know that for a month until all the (centrally assessed) property owners file their `intangible' appeals with the Tax Commission."

Oveson suggests several options. The most immediate is to change the definition of "property" in part of the Utah Code. By taking out the phrase "and other intangibles" in the definition, the Tax Commission's recent ruling could exclude a lot of the items that must be exempt from taxation. In effect, the big firms would be back almost to square one, paying more than they think they should.

"We'd solve this immediate problem" by a definitional change, said Overson. But more court cases could be down the road and ultimately the Legislature would once again have to decide how to tax the property and assets of some of the state's largest businesses.