What is a mill?
A mill is $1 in property tax for every $1,000 in assessed value. Your home's assessed value is 11.5 percent of its fair market value, or, in other words, the amount the county thinks you could receive if you sold your home.
Pity poor Coffeyville.
The southeastern Kansas community has the highest combined mill levy of any city above 10,000 people in the state.
Its total mill levy - city, county, school district, et al - is 179 mills. It makes Lawrence's combined mill levy of 115 mills look like a tax utopia.
The owner of an average single-family home in Coffeyville paid $1,121 in property taxes this year. The owner of an average single-family home in Lawrence paid $2,493. The difference, of course, is that an average home in Coffeyville costs about $55,000. In Lawrence, it costs about $190,000.
But hey, you can pity Coffeyville if you want.
That's the world of property taxes for you. First glances often are deceiving, and many times you end up comparing apples to oranges and then wishing you had a tangerine.
It's complicated because the average home in one community may be far different from the average home in another. Amenities in one town may be far better than amenities in another. One town may be perched upon the hill overlooking the valley; the other may be in the valley looking up the hill.
You get the picture.
But there does seem to be one near certainty when it comes to property taxes this year: If you live in Lawrence, your mill levy is going up. The Douglas County Commission has pretty much sealed that. Facing finances tighter than they've seen in years, county commissioners have tentatively agreed on a 2.92 mill levy increase.
It seems unlikely that either the city or school district will cut their mill levies enough to offset that increase. The city has proposed a one-tenth-of-a-mill decrease, although commissioners will be lobbied this week to increase the mill levy to provide guaranteed funding for the city's public transit system. The school district is still wading through the budget muck, but board members have talked more about increasing the mill levy than decreasing it.
So where does all this leave us when it comes to property taxes? That all depends on where you stand.
On one side of the fence is Boog Highberger, the lone city commissioner who has come out in support of increasing the mill levy this year to fund public transportation. Highberger is far from a fan of property taxes - he said they were damaging downtown businesses - but says property taxes are not as heinous in Lawrence as some may believe.
Highberger can point to the mill levy rates of some of the larger cities in the state to back up his point. Of the 25 "cities of the first class" - a legal term used to describe cities that generally are among the higher profile in the state - Lawrence's mill levy is significantly below average.
Lawrence checks in with a combined mill levy of 115 mills. The average for the group is 129 mills.
"I think as long as we're still below the median on the mill levy, that's a good sign for us," Highberger said.
As our trip through Coffeyville confirmed, mill levies can be deceiving. But so can common perceptions. Highberger said he believed many people were under the impression that Lawrence was somehow more expensive to live in than Johnson County communities.
A look at the numbers shows that is not the case. Here's the math that we did: We used the mill levy of each community and the average selling price of a single-family home in each community- based on 2007 data - to determine how much the owner of an average-priced house paid in property taxes for a year.
The result was that of the 19 communities in Johnson County, only three - Roeland Park, Merriam and Mission - came in with an average property tax bill below Lawrence's.
"I think people are still getting a pretty good value for their money in Lawrence," Highberger said.
On the other side of the fence is City Commissioner Rob Chestnut, who has been one of the more fervent opponents of increasing the city's mill levy. Chestnut makes two points: Compare Lawrence's property tax bills with any place other than Johnson County, and Lawrence residents generally end up paying the higher bill. And second, he thinks the situation has gotten far worse in recent years.
The numbers seem to back him up. We weren't able to do a comparison between Lawrence and every city in the state, but a quick look at a few major cities outside of Johnson County confirms Chestnut's suspicion. The owner of an average home in Lawrence pays about $500 more per year in property taxes than an average homeowner in Topeka; about $250 more than in Manhattan; and about $850 more than in Salina.
But more concerning to Chestnut is that Lawrence has a significant history of large property tax increases. In 2000, the owner of an average-priced home in Lawrence paid an annual property tax of $1,546. Today it is $2,493. That's an increase of about 61 percent, or about 7.5 percent per year.
"We're talking about people experiencing increases two, three or four times the rate of inflation," Chestnut said. "At some point, you have to believe enough is enough."
People who agree with Chestnut can point fingers in two directions. One was a hot real estate market during the eight-year period. The average selling price for a single-family home increased from $132,500 to $189,900. But elected leaders in all three levels of government also raised property tax rates. In 2001, the total mill levy was 101 mills, compared with 115 today.
Another number pointed to by Chestnut - he's a chief financial officer by trade - is how much faster property tax collections are growing than sales tax collections. From 2002 to 2007, property tax collections in the city's general fund have increased by 82 percent - rising from $6.6 million to $12 million per year. Sales tax collections have increased by 33 percent during the same time period - growing from $18 million to $23 million per year.
To Chestnut - who is a supporter of two proposed sales tax initiatives - it is clear the property tax trend must change.
"If it doesn't, I think more and more we will face the challenge of people saying they would love to live in Lawrence but can't afford to live here."
So, what do you think? Maybe you don't have enough numbers. Take comfort. You're sure to get at least one more.
Property tax bills will arrive in November.