From nearly 30% to zero, Douglas County property tax collections are set to increase by wildly different amounts
photo by: Rochelle Valverde
If you pay property taxes in Douglas County, chances are you soon will pay more of them.
Even if the governments that serve you — the county, a city, a school district, a township — hold their property tax rates steady, you likely are going to pay more in property taxes. Even if the government reduces its property tax rate, there’s a strong chance you’ll still pay more in property taxes.
How so? In short, because property taxes are complicated. A property tax rate is only half the equation of figuring your property taxes. The value of your home or other real estate is the second half. Real estate values have been soaring in Douglas County, which means property tax bills are going to increase, even if the actual tax rate doesn’t.
But how much more may vary a lot depending on where you live in the county. And a group that we don’t often thank — state government — is making it easier for us to see how much.
Kansas law now requires every property taxing entity in a county to list what its proposed property tax rate is and what its tax rate would be if the entity simply was collecting the same total amount of property taxes as it did the year before. The state calls that a revenue neutral tax rate.
That required report has now been completed, and it shows that some government entities are poised to collect nearly 30% more in property taxes than they did a year ago. On the other end of the spectrum, six — out of 35 taxing entities in the county — are proposing property tax totals that are equal to or less than a year ago.
Granted, four of the six are drainage districts that have relatively small property tax rates. The other two, though, are townships — the rural governments that maintain country roads, ditches and other types of infrastructure. The Lecompton Township and the Palmyra Township, which serves an area near Baldwin City, have crafted budgets that meet the state’s revenue neutral definition.
The other 29 taxing entities, though, are increasing the amount of property taxes they collect, and by amounts all over the board. Some of the taxing districts have pretty small tax rates. Those are things like cemetery districts, library districts, fire districts, and the drainage districts that I mentioned earlier. To not overwhelm us, I’ve set those smaller taxing entities to the side.
Below is a look at the larger taxing entities, which includes the county, the cities, the school districts and the rural townships. The percentage shows how much above the revenue neutral number each taxing entity proposes to be for their 2023 budgets.
• Marion Township: 29.6%
• Clinton Township: 22%
• Willow Springs Township: 18%
• Baldwin Public Schools: 17.8%
• Eudora Township: 16.8%
• City of Baldwin: 16.4%
• City of Eudora: 14.8%
• City of Lawrence: 12.3%
• City of Lecompton: 12.1%
• Douglas County: 9.9%
• Lawrence Public Schools: 9.7%
• Eudora Public Schools: 8.3%
• Grant Township: 8.2%
• Wakarusa Township: 4.6%
And remember, Lecompton and Palmyra townships aren’t proposing to be above the revenue neutral rate, so the report didn’t list their specific numbers.
What should you make of this list? It basically tells you how much more a particular government thinks it needs in property taxes to do its business next year. It doesn’t do anything to tell you why they think they need that additional money. I have no idea why Marion Township thinks it needs nearly 30% more in property taxes to fund its operations in 2023.
Governments may have perfectly reasonable answers. For example, if a lot more people are living inside the boundaries of a government, it should not be surprising that the government is going to collect more in property taxes. It probably is going to spend more in property taxes to serve those people too. Another example is maybe a government has decided to eliminate its sales tax and now collect all of its revenue from property taxes. There are other examples we could come up with.
You probably shouldn’t judge based on this list, but you might want to use the list as the basis for some questions you’re going to ask your government.
Importantly, though, what conclusion should you not draw from this list? You should not conclude, for example, that Marion Township residents are going to see their property tax bills go up by the largest dollar amount. That would be confusing percentages with dollars, and that can get expensive in a hurry. Think of it this way: Somebody might increase the price I pay for a candy bar by 50%, which might cost me an additional 50 cents in actual money. However, someone might increase the price I pay for a vehicle by 10%, which might cost me an additional $5,000.
That’s the same thing with these governments, which vary tremendously in size, duties, and most importantly, how much they rely on property taxes to fund their operations. Some are candy bars and some are Ford F150s with heated leather seats and cup holders the size of Texas.
To give you an idea of what this means in terms of dollars out of your pocket, I’ve calculated how much the owner of a $200,000 home would pay if the government entity adopted the revenue neutral property tax rate versus how much the owner of that same home would pay if the government adopts its proposed tax rate. The number I list is the difference between those two tax bills. You’ll notice the order of the list changes quite a bit.
• Baldwin Public Schools: $194 more than revenue neutral rate
• City of Baldwin: $145 more than revenue neutral rate
• Marion Township: $120 more than revenue neutral rate
• City of Eudora: $117 more than revenue neutral rate
• Eudora Public Schools: $117 more than revenue neutral rate
• Lawrence Public Schools: $108 more than revenue neutral rate
• Douglas County: $96 more than revenue neutral rate
• City of Lawrence: $84 more than revenue neutral rate
• City of Lecompton: $61 more than revenue neutral rate
• Eudora Township: $57 more than revenue neutral rate
• Clinton Township: $43 more than revenue neutral rate
• Grant Township: $39 more than revenue neutral rate
• Willow Springs Township: $36 more than revenue neutral rate
• Wakarusa Township: $11 more than revenue neutral rate
This list, I think, helps cut through some of the complications that come with property taxes. It always has been difficult to listen to a budget discussion at City Hall or the County Courthouse and gauge how much your property taxes really are going to go up. They spend their time talking about the property tax rate, but that is only half of the equation, as noted above. How much your home increased in value is the other half.
By forcing every government entity to calculate their revenue neutral rate, state lawmakers are making an effort to provide citizens with a more complete picture. It is not a perfect picture because these numbers still deal in averages. If you want to know the situation exactly for your home, you are going to have to do the math. You’re going to have to find out how much your home increased in value, because the numbers change a lot if it went up 5% or 15%.
But the list above gives you a general sense of the situation for each entity. It doesn’t tell you everything you need to know, however, to judge whether these governments are budgeting appropriately. There are reasons why a government would want to collect more in property taxes than the year before. Inflation is a good reason. Even if you are providing the exact same level of services, inflation will mean it costs government more to provide those services. Another reason is that perhaps residents have said they want additional services. That likely will cost more.
So, my aim here is not to make any judgements about the proposed budgets for each government. Rather, it is to give you data, so you can start the process of making your own judgements as residents. The revenue neutral rate report for Douglas County was required to be published as a legal notice in the Journal-World, and it ran on page 2B of the Aug. 11 edition. In addition to listing the rates, the chart lists the time, date and location of every budget hearing for every government entity in the county. Those budget hearings are where you can go and ask your questions and make your own judgements.
Take advantage of the opportunity, because hiding your opinion won’t do anything to help you hide from the tax bill.