Since 2002 Douglas County’s property tax rate has increased 70%; state’s other largest counties up 8%
photo by: Sylas May
Over the last two decades, Douglas County has experienced the largest increase in property tax rates of any urban county in Kansas, a review of statewide data has found.
And the comparison is not close.
Douglas County has seen its property tax rate increase 70% since 2002. The average increase for Kansas’ urban counties — excluding Douglas County — has been 8%.
While it may be a dubious distinction, the review also found Douglas County is pulling off a feat that not many other counties in the state have: Its growth as a community — measured by the size of its tax base — is above the statewide average, but the amount its property tax rates have increased also is above the statewide average.
About 20 years worth of data shows that if a Kansas county is growing at an above-average rate, its property tax rates generally increase at a below-average rate — or sometimes even fall.
But a phrase that has been uttered many times for many other reasons applies here: Douglas County is different.
Figuring out why Douglas County is different in this instance could have big ramifications for local taxpayers because Douglas County’s increase in its property tax rate has been stark when compared to the state as a whole, and particularly when compared to other urban counties in Kansas.
Here are two quick examples:
1. Douglas County’s property tax rate — measured in mills — has increased by 70% from 2002 to 2021. The average increase for a Kansas county in that time period is 30%.
2. Since 2002, Douglas County’s mill levy has increased about 19 mills. The average increase for the other five urban counties was about 2.5 mills.
On a percentage basis, the average increase in those urban counties was 8%, compared to Douglas’ 70%, meaning Douglas County’s property tax rate has increased nearly nine times more than Kansas’ other large counties.
The two county commissioners who spoke to the Journal-World about the findings expressed a range of thoughts from surprise to partial understanding of why Douglas County’s tax rates have grown so differently than others.
“I honestly have not looked at Douglas County’s historical property rate comparisons to other counties, so I did not know that we were that far out of step with other areas,” outgoing County Commissioner Shannon Portillo said.
County Commissioner Patrick Kelly said he also wasn’t aware of the numbers, but said as they are reviewed in more depth there may be good reasons why Douglas County’s tax rate has increased at a significantly faster pace, including that its services and programs may be stronger than elsewhere.
“There are many things in Douglas County that make it a great reason to live here, and people come here because of that,” Kelly said. “Tax rate is not the only thing that people use to decide whether to live in Douglas County.”
Attempts to arrange an interview with the third county commissioner, Chair Shannon Reid, were unsuccessful.
The Journal-World compiled property tax rates — known as mill levies — for Kansas counties in both 2002 and 2021, using archived data from the Kansas Statistical Abstract program at the University of Kansas.
The Journal-World calculated how much the mill levies have changed from 2002 to 2021 (not all counties have set their 2022 rates yet.)
The comparison comes as Douglas County property owners are expecting a significant increase in property tax bills this fall. Douglas County government cut its property tax rate by one mill — the only major government in Lawrence that has cut the property tax rate this year — but county tax bills are still expected to go up by 10% or more for many residents. That’s due to historic jumps in property values.
When you combine all individual county numbers to create an average, the typical Kansas county in that time period has seen its mill levy increase by 13.5 mills, which is a 30% increase from nearly 20 years ago.
But remember, that statewide average includes a lot of Kansas counties that are losing population, losing business and struggling to hang on. Those counties have tremendous pressure on their property tax rates. That’s a different situation than many of Kansas’ urban counties, which generally have seen population and business growth.
Here is a look at those urban counties, which are defined by the state as counties that have at least 150 residents per square mile:
• Douglas: up 19.6 mills or 70.4%
• Johnson: up 2.3 mills or 14.4%
• Leavenworth: down 3.4 mills or 8.5%
• Sedgwick: up 0.5 of a mill or 2%
• Shawnee: up 10.2 mills or 25.2%
• Wyandotte: up 3 mills or 8.2%
Technically, Riley County does not meet the state’s definition of an urban county, so it is not included in the urban averages. But, as the home to Kansas State University, there are similarities with Lawrence for sure. Riley County since 2002 has seen an increase of 7.6 mills or 22.1%.
That list highlights the stark difference between Douglas County and the other urban counties. Every other urban county kept its mill levy increase below the statewide average, while Douglas County’s mill levy increased at a rate more than two times the average.
The differences aren’t confined just to urban counties, either. Out of the state’s 105 counties, there are 53 that have had above-average growth in their tax bases since 2002. Of those 53 counties, 44 of them have either reduced their mill levies since 2002 or seen their mill levies grow at a rate less than the statewide average. The remaining nine counties are in the same boat as Douglas — their tax bases grew at an above-average rate but so did their mill levies. However, no one is in a boat as big as Douglas’. Since 2002, Douglas County has had the largest mill levy increase by percentage of any county in the state that also had above-average tax base growth.
But, let’s take a break for a moment from these esoteric numbers and get to one you may care more about: Dollars. If Douglas County’s mill levy had grown at the same rate that the other urban counties had since 2002, its mill levy today would be 30 mills instead of 47 mills. That’s a difference of 17 mills. If the owner of a $200,000 home paid 17 mills less in property taxes, those owners would pay $391 per year less in county property taxes than they do today.
There are several things these numbers don’t mean, however. Douglas County hasn’t had the largest tax rate increase in the state. It is the largest only among urban counties. Among all 105 counties, Douglas County had the 14th highest property tax rate increase, as measured by percentage. Stanton County — population 2,084 in far southwest Kansas — had a 222% increase. Interestingly, only two counties east of Topeka were in the top 15 of largest tax increases. Douglas was one, and Osage County — a county of about 15,000 people that saw its population peak in the 1890s — is the other.
Another thing the numbers don’t mean is that Douglas County has the highest property tax rate. Douglas County is nowhere close to having the highest mill levy in Kansas. Stanton County — remember it from above — has a mill levy of 179 mills, while eight other rural counties also have mill levies of 100 or more. Those counties not only don’t have much growth in their tax bases, but they also generally don’t have the urban benefit of regional shopping centers, which bring in large amounts of sales tax dollars that blunt a county’s reliance on property tax dollars.
As for who has the highest property taxes — remember, your taxes are determined by both the tax rate and the value of your property — that’s a question that requires quite a bit more data.
Knowing the average price of a home in each county would be useful, as would knowing how much of the growth of a county’s tax base came from new additions — such as new homes and businesses — versus simply inflation and rising property values. For good measure, knowing the average household income of each county also would make such an analysis more meaningful.
But that is not the question we are answering here. Rather, by looking at the change in property tax rates, we are trying to ascertain how well a county has adjusted to the challenges of the last two decades while at the same time managing the growth of their property tax rates.
The numbers indicated Douglas County has struggled more than most, and has struggled more than any growing county in the state.
The big question, of course, is why?
Douglas County differences
One possible answer is that you get what you pay for. Perhaps Douglas County over the last two decades simply has expanded and improved its county government services at a rate greater than other counties.
But remember, Douglas County’s property tax rate has increased at about nine times the rate of other urban counties in Kansas. Has Douglas County seen its services grow and improve that much more than other urban counties?
Kelly and Portillo stopped short of saying that, but said there are differences of note between the services offered by Douglas County and some other communities. Portillo mentioned public health services and behavioral health services, although the latter is funded more heavily by sales tax rather than property taxes in Douglas County. Kelly mentioned programs like a county-funded truancy prevention program and the many programs the county offers as an alternative to incarceration in the county jail as other examples.
Portillo — who is resigning her position on the County Commission to lead the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University — said the tax rate comparison is something for the county to be mindful of.
“I think it is important to work on bringing that mill rate down long term,” she said.
She said more commercial development could help grow the county’s tax base. She said that may require a more strategic approach to economic development. For instance, Portillo said while the growth of the University of Kansas’ business/research center on the West Campus — KU Innovation Park — has many positives, it hasn’t done much to grow the community’s property tax base because the development has been on tax-exempt property owned by KU Endowment.
Figuring out how to address issues like that — which not every community has — will be important to reversing the county’s property tax trend, she said. So too could additional growth. Portillo said she thinks additional growth could take some pressure off the property tax rate.
“I think it would because we would have more properties paying into it, so that would allow us to lower the mill rates and have each contributor contributing less,” Portillo said. “So, I think that growth would be helpful.”
Kelly said he is not sure whether the property tax numbers should put pressure on the county to lower its mill levy, or at least decrease its rate of growth. He said more thought ought to be given to what the county might have to do without if the county made those changes.
“It is a fair question to ask,” Kelly said of whether Douglas County should adjust its tax rate to become more in line with other communities. “But I hope we ask more than just that question.”
Or, another way to say it: “Johnson County approaches things very differently than we do here in Douglas County,” Kelly said. “When I talk to people here, they don’t want to be Johnson County. Each community is different.”