Ah, summer. The season of sipping lemonade, Little League baseball games, backyard barbecues and taxes.
Summer is the time of year that governments throughout the county get calculators in hand, put pencil to paper and sit through meeting after meeting to determine just how much you’re going to pay in property taxes.
If you haven’t been paying close attention all summer long, it could be tough to catch up. There are a lot of numbers flying through the air. There’s the county property tax rate, then there’s the city property tax rate, and, of course, there’s the school district. And if you live in the rural parts of Douglas County, there are township tax rates.
So, as summer wanes, we thought we ought to do something to tally up the winners and losers, so to speak. Something like an awards show. You know, instead of the Emmys, the Taxies. Instead of the Oscars, the Taxcars. Yeah, we don’t know what to call them either. Anyway, on with the show.
Largest tax rate increase
This wasn’t an overly active category this year. As the economy took its lumps, local governments kept their property tax rates largely steady. Of the 20 government entities the Journal-World examined, 17 of them did not change their property tax rate by more than a mill in either direction.
But here are the top five:
• No. 5: Perry-Lecompton school district: up 0.655 mill.
• No. 4: Lawrence school district: up 0.685 mill.
• No. 3: Eudora township: up 1.065 mills.
• No. 2: Eudora school district: up 1.964 mills.
And the winner is … in a runaway, the Baldwin City school district: up 9.98 mills.
There’s no surprise here. Baldwin school district voters in November approved a $22.9 million bond issue that will allow the district to build an elementary school, a performing arts center, athletic fields and make several renovations.
“We realize here in Baldwin that education is important, and we also realize that we have to pay for it,” said Alison Bauer, president of the Baldwin School Board. “I’m sure some people will be upset when they get their tax bills, but I’ll gently remind them that this is what the people voted for and that the children here will really benefit from it for a long time.”
The Baldwin bond was by far the single issue that did the most to change the tax landscape in the county. More on that in a moment.
An interactive game
First a word from our sponsors. For those of you new to our show, a mill is one dollar in property tax for every $1,000 in assessed value you own.
Here’s how it works. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say your house is worth $100,000. You pay taxes on 11.5 percent of that value, meaning your assessed valuation is $11,500. Divide that by 1,000 and you get $11.50. Every mill for a $100,000 home equates to $11.50 in property taxes per year.
You should already know the taxable value of your home. The county appraiser sent out change of value notices to homeowners in March. If you’ve lost that notice, you can look it up online at douglas-county.com.
For the first time in years, most homeowners probably didn’t see their values go up much, if any, said Steve Miles, Douglas County appraiser. That’s a result of the downturn in the real estate market.
Now back to the winners.
Largest mill levy decline
If you thought the action was a little slow in the first category, prepare to be underwhelmed here. The tight economy made governments uneasy in raising property tax rates, but the same weak economy made it difficult for governments to make major tax rate reductions.
• No. 5: Douglas County: down 0.017 mill
• No. 4: Palmyra Township: down 0.018 mill
• No. 3: Lecompton Township: down 0.303 mill
• No. 2: Baldwin City: down 0.86 mill
And the winner is … Wakarusa Township, down 1 mill.
The city category
Here’s how this category works. When you live in a city, you pay property taxes to at least four different entities: the state, the county, the school district and the city. We added up the mill levies for all four of those entities and compared them to last year’s levels.
Not to give the ending away, but the total tax rate for all four cities in the county went up, even though the county dropped its mill levy, and several cities held their rates steady. But in every case, the mill levies for school districts went up.
Here’s a look at the combined property tax rates and their increases for the four cities in Douglas County:
• No. 4: Baldwin City, fueled by the school bond issue, saw its combined mill levy increase by 9.103 mills to 135.528 mills.
• No. 3: Eudora’s combined rate went up as both the city and school district raised their tax rates. The total rose 2.513 mills to 129.957 mills.
• No. 2: Lawrence’s combined rate went up slightly due to an increase from the Lawrence school district. The total rose 0.708 of a mill to 119.074 mills.
• No. 1: Lecompton, the smallest city in the county, also has the lowest combined mill levy. It rose 0.647 mill to 111.499 mills.
The price of country living
Figuring a combined property tax rate in a township is more difficult because many townships are part of two or more school districts. So, the tax rate can vary greatly depending on what part of the township you live in.
But when we figured the township rates, five jumped out at us. In these five township areas, residents pay a higher overall mill levy than their counterparts in the city limits of Lawrence pay, which is 119.074 mills. That’s despite the townships not having many of the same city-style services. But they also don’t have as many college keg parties that go till 2 in the morning either.
No. 5: Wakarusa Township in the Baldwin school district: 121.681 mills.
No. 4: Willow Springs Township in the Baldwin school district: 121.937 mills.
No. 3: Eudora Township in the Eudora school district: 123.956 mills.
No. 2: Eudora Township in the Baldwin school district: 126.171 mills.
No. 1: Marion Township in the Baldwin school district. The township in the far southwest corner of Douglas County has a combined rate of 129.207 mills.
The whole ball of wax (sort of)
Here’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Yes, it’s the end of the story, but that’s not what we mean. Here’s where we list what area of the county has the lowest tax rate.
Douglas County’s tax hideaway, so to speak. Well, sort of.
As we explained earlier, there are multiple combinations when it comes to figuring combined tax rates for townships. There are four school districts based in Franklin, Osage and Shawnee counties that extend into parts of Douglas County. Tax rates for those school districts weren’t immediately available.
Also, we caution people to use the numbers only as estimates. There are some areas of the county that have other miscellaneous tax rates charged, such as drainage districts, cemetery boards, library levies and other items that are generally a mill or two at most. We did not add those in because it got too complicated.
But don’t worry, you’ll end up getting a precise number. Tax bills should start arriving in mailboxes in early November. First half payments are due Dec. 20.
Without further delay, here’s the list of Douglas County’s cheapest tax areas.
• No. 16: Baldwin City: 135.528 mills.
• No. 15: City of Eudora: 129.957 mills.
• No. 14: Marion Township in Baldwin school district: 129.207 mills.
• No. 13: Eudora Township in Baldwin school district: 126.171 mills.
• No. 12: Eudora Township in Eudora school district: 123.956 mills.
• No. 11: Willows Springs Township in Baldwin school district: 121.937 mills.
• No. 10: Wakarusa Township in Baldwin school district: 121.681 mills.
• No. 9: City of Lawrence: 119.074 mills.
• No. 8: Palmyra Township in Baldwin school district: 117.941 mills.
• No. 7: Lecompton Township in Perry-Lecompton school district: 113.616 mills.
• No. 6: Kanwaka Township in Lawrence school district: 112.411 mills.
• No. 5: City of Lecompton: 111.499 mills.
• No. 4: Wakarusa Township in Lawrence school district: 109.087 mills.
• No. 3: Kanwaka Township in Perry-Lecompton school district: 108.223 mills.
• No. 2: Grant Township in Lawrence school district: 106.687 mills.
And if we had drums, we would roll them here. Your winner is …
• No. 1: Clinton Township in the Lawrence school district with a combined mill levy of 103.482 mills.
The township in western Douglas County has a secret weapon. Clinton Lake decades ago swallowed up thousands of acres of township property and roads. Now, the township has only about 22 miles of road to maintain, and it operates a volunteer fire department. As a result, the Clinton Township funds its operations with a mill levy of 11.095 mills, the lowest of any government in the county.
Despite its small geographical size, it still takes some effort to keep the mill levy that low, especially considering that the township is buying a new fire truck and a road grader with its tax dollars.
“I guess,” said longtime Clinton Township Trustee Charles Hodges, “we just don’t like to spend money.”
Look at that. Low taxes and he knows how to give a short acceptance speech, too.