Editorial: Local leaders are working to keep property taxes in check
photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration
Local elected leaders deserve some credit for how they have addressed property taxes this budget season.
Lawrence city commissioners appear to be on track to hold the property tax rate steady in the upcoming 2020 budget. Douglas County commissioners have committed that they will limit a rate increase to about 0.3 mills. Lawrence school board members have committed to lower the district’s property tax rate by 0.7 mills.
If all those figures hold true, Lawrence residents should see their local property tax rate decline by nearly half a mill. We won’t throw leaders a ticker tape parade — all that paper probably wouldn’t pass muster with the sustainability advisory boards — but a decrease in the property tax rate is worth noting.
It doesn’t always happen in Douglas County. Since 2012, both the city and the county have increased property tax rates five out of the last six years. The property tax rate set by Douglas County commissioners has increased by 28% or about 10 mills during that time. The property tax rate set by Lawrence city commissioners has increased by 12%, or a little more than 3 mills, during the same time period. The Lawrence school board has overseen a decline of about 6% during the time period, or almost four mills. It probably should be noted that of the three governments, the school district has the least amount of freedom to set its mill levy. There have been years the district would have liked to have raised its tax rate but was prohibited from doing so by regulations set by the state.
In some ways, the actions of the Douglas County Commission are the most encouraging, even though it appears to be the one government that is set to pass a tax rate increase. It is unfortunate that the county can’t figure out how to eliminate that tax rate increase, but it has shown some good faith efforts to hold back an even larger increase.
Specifically, the county had been considering an additional 0.3 mill levy increase to fund a “drug court,” which would be an alternative type of court that seeks to keep drug offenders out of jail whenever possible. Commissioners decided to create the drug court, but instead of funding it with a tax increase they will fund it with money set aside to expand the Douglas County Jail. The decision means the jail project will have slightly less money for expansion, but, theoretically, a drug court should help lessen pressure on the jail.
The compromise was fair and was a welcome sign that county commissioners are understanding they can’t oversee another five years of property tax increases like the last five years.
Another welcome sign is that during that same meeting, County Commissioner Nancy Thellman indicated it might be time for the county to slow down on creating new programs aimed at reducing incarceration rates. After the drug court is up and running, she said the county may want to review the variety of programs that have been put in place. This is wise. Before the county creates new programs, it should assure itself and the taxpayers that the new programs are producing the desired results.
Again, it would be good if the county could find a way to hold the mill levy steady. It should be in the realm of possibility given that the tax base for both the city and the county has grown by about 5% for the year. That’s why some people may still see an increase in their tax bills even if their rate goes down. If everything else is equal, property taxes automatically rise when the values of properties increase.
That key fact is worth remembering. It explains the inherent flaw of property taxes. People often get taxed on a benefit that they have not yet received. That’s not the case with sales taxes or income taxes. With your property taxes, you can see an increase in your taxes simply because an appraiser says your house is worth more money on the market today. But unless you sell your home, you will receive none of the benefit from owning a more expensive home. Yet, you will pay the increase in taxes anyway.
For that reason and many others, elected officials have a responsibility to keep property taxes in check. Local residents should continue to urge them to do so.