Assessment Reform in Indiana

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The property tax in Indiana has long generated considerable public policy debate, centering on the methods prescribed by the state to determine property values. Most states use some form of market value as the assessment standard, but Indiana relies on "true tax value." Indiana law defines this as "the value determined under the rules of the State Board of Tax Commissioners," and it declares that "true tax value does not mean fair market value."

A landmark decision by the state Supreme Court in December 1998 ignited new debate over Indiana's property tax system. The Court ruled that the tables used in the 1995 assessment manual lacked "meaningful reference to property wealth," did not contain "objectively verifiable data," and violated the state constitution. Although the legal opinion contained language suggesting approval of the use of market-derived data, the Court fell short of mandating a system based strictly on market value.

Almost two years have passed since this ruling, but minimal progress has been made in implementing a more equitable and uniform assessment system. Policy makers have focused almost exclusively on the projected tax shifts, especially those to homeowners, under market-derived valuation methods, and have all but ignored the underlying inequities that plague Indiana's assessment system.

This article reviews the essential features of Indiana's property tax and assessment systems, describes recent reform efforts, and identifies critical reform issues, apart from the tax shifts, that need to be addressed.

Property Tax and Assessment Systems

Property Tax Revenues. In 1999, the property tax raised more than $4.6 billion, nearly all of it generated locally and used for local services, especially K-12 public education. The property tax is the largest revenue source in Indiana, generating more revenue in 1999 than federal funds ($3.8 billion), individual income taxes ($3.7 billion), and sales and use taxes ($3.4 billion). Together, these four revenue sources account for nearly 80 percent of total state and local revenue (see Figure 1).

Nearly 65 percent of the total property tax levy in 1999 was paid by the business community, including commercial, industrial, utility, and agricultural property (see Figure 2). Personal property accounts for about one-half of the total business property tax burden. Although Indiana's constitution prohibits unequal property taxation, this relatively high business share demonstrates a de facto classification system that allocates a majority of the property tax burden to non-voting entities.

Local Administration. The primary assessing jurisdiction in Indiana is the township. Each of the state's 1,008 townships elects either a full- or part-time assessor, depending on population; nearly 85 percent of these assessors are part-time. County assessors are elected in each of the state's 92 counties. As a general rule, the county assessor has a greater role when townships have more part-time assessors, because the county assessor reviews both personal property and real estate assessments.

State Administration. The State Board of Tax Commissioners (Tax Board), the first property tax commission of its kind in the nation, is primarily responsible for promulgating assessment rules and regulations for both real and personal property. Additionally, the Tax Board hears property tax appeals, approves local government budgets, provides assessor training, and maintains a comprehensive local government database.

Assessment Standards. Real and personal property are assessed at one-third of true tax value (TTV). The TTV of improved real property is based on a cost approach, but neither the replacement costs nor the depreciation schedules are market derived. In fact, when compared to the market, Indiana's TTVs vary widely, not only between property classes (i.e., residential, business, utility and agricultural) but within classes as well.

The TTV of personal property is based on original acquisition cost, but, like the TTV of real property, relies on depreciation schedules that bear little relationship to the market. Most business assets receive accelerated depreciation of 40 to 60 percent in the first few years. However, older assets are subject to a relatively high residual value of 30 percent of original cost. Business inventory also is based on its original cost and is subject to the same floor, but it receives a 35 percent assessment deduction.

Indiana law provides that the TTV of land is to be based on market value, but recent studies have found that land assessments are significantly less than market value. Residential land values are roughly 40 percent of market value. The TTV of farmland is based on a use value of $495 per acre, adjusted for soil productivity, resulting in an assessment that is also well below market value.

Assessment Cycle. Indiana employs two different assessment cycles. Personal property is self-assessed annually, while real property reassessment is both infrequent and irregular. The last general reassessment of real property took effect in March 1995. The previous reassessment occurred in 1989, and reassessments generally took effect every ten years before then. The next general reassessment of real property has been delayed from March 1999 until at least March 2002.

Assessment Reform

Major state reform efforts, whether in welfare programs, school funding or tax policy, tend be driven by either fiscal distress or judicial mandates, but the political process dictates the speed of reform. This same pattern holds true for tax reform to achieve a more equitable and uniform assessment system in Indiana, as policy makers have been slow to respond to judicial mandates.

Judicial Efforts. The Indiana Supreme Court's 1998 decision in State Board of Tax Commissioners v. Town of St. John is widely considered to be the most significant judicial decision on taxation in the state's history. The Supreme Court affirmed the state Tax Court's decision that the 1995 real property assessment manual violated the state constitution's requirement that the Indiana General Assembly provide for ". . . a uniform and equal rate of property assessment and taxation."

The Supreme Court found these mandates of uniformity and equality were not met because the manual's cost schedules were arbitrary, did not reflect actual construction costs, and were not based on "objectively verifiable" data. Unlike the Tax Court, however, the Supreme Court did not mandate a strict market value system. Rather, it ruled that any departures from market value must result in assessments that are "substantially uniform and equal based on property wealth."

Because executive and legislative policy makers have been slow to respond to this mandate, the Tax Court has become increasingly assertive in the pursuit of an equitable assessment system. Recently, the Tax Court established certain dates for both the adoption (June 2001) and implementation (March 2002) of constitutional assessment regulations, required the Tax Board to submit monthly progress reports, and announced that an independent reassessment commissioner would be appointed if the Tax Board's efforts were "deficient in any meaningful way."

Executive Efforts. To carry out its duty to ensure uniformity and equality of property assessment and taxation, the Indiana General Assembly has delegated the development and oversight of the state's assessment system to the State Tax Board, an executive agency under the governor. This agency has the unenviable task of creating a new assessment system that will likely cause considerable shifts in tax burdens. Delays have further politicized this process, and assessment reform and tax burden shifts have become the focus of the November 2000 general election.

The Tax Board has taken steps to comply with the Supreme Court decision. The Board's 1999 proposed real property assessment manual incorporated market-derived cost tables for all property classes. Residential depreciation schedules also were based on the market, and the base value of agricultural land was increased from $495 to $1,050 an acre.

Unfortunately, other actions by the Tax Board and the inaction of the executive branch may have offset these improvements. For example, the proposed manual provided a residential assessment reduction, or shelter allowance. The Tax Board argued that basic shelter is not property wealth, since other assets cannot substitute for shelter. A shelter allowance was calculated for each county, ranging in value between $16,000 and $22,686, to be deducted from residential property assessments. This unique valuation method would reduce the predicted residential tax shift from 33 to 7 percent and could be considered a form of classification. Viewing this shift as unacceptable, the governor did not approve the 1999 proposed real estate manual, illustrating the highly politicized nature of assessment reform.

Legislative Efforts. Anticipating a major court decision, the 1997 Indiana General Assembly enacted legislation that many considered the first step toward significant assessment reform. It increased assessor training requirements, improved the local and state appeals process, and required the state to establish level of assessment and uniformity standards and to conduct equalization studies. Again, these improvements may have been offset by other legislative initiatives. The 1997 legislation allows township assessors to establish land values, an authority that previously rested with county land commissions. Current data indicates that these township land values are far from market values, and it is unlikely that the large number of part-time township assessors can establish more accurate land values in the future.

The recently enacted equalization legislation is also problematic. Most states equalize assessments in the first year that reassessment takes effect, to provide immediate mitigation for unequal assessment. Current Indiana law delays equalization for at least two years following the effective date of reassessment.

Conclusion

It comes as no surprise that projected property tax shifts have become the focal point of both assessment reform efforts and the 2000 general election. The highly politicized debate over "acceptable" tax burden shifts has distracted policy makers from addressing reform of assessment regulations. While market-derived assessment manuals represent a significant step, this alone will not result in a more uniform and equitable assessment system. Policy makers must also consider the following issues:

1. Taxpayer equity cannot be measured by interclass tax shifts at the county level alone. Assessment reform will produce dramatic intraclass and intracounty tax shifts, but these shifts have been discussed only as they relate to residential property. Yet, current data indicates that equally significant shifts will occur within other property classes, especially business property.

2. The current administrative structure of the state's assessment system may not be compatible with an equitable and uniform assessment system. Restructuring the Tax Board could help insulate it from the political consequences of its oversight function. At the local level, policy makers should consider streamlining the roles of local assessors and identifying alternative assessment jurisdiction models based on population, parcel counts, and/or assessed value.

3. Adoption and enforcement of strict equalization standards may be the most significant step in the reform process.

4. The Indiana assessment community should take further steps to increase the level of assessor training and expand assessor qualification requirements. Policy makers also should consider appointment of local assessors by the county executive.

5. Indiana land assessments have been and continue to be well below market value. This underlying problem must be rectified through assessor training, more diligent state oversight, and implementation of the equalization process.

These issues must be addressed in order to remedy the inequities currently plaguing Indiana's property tax and assessment systems.

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Frank Kelly and Jeff Wuensch are cofounders of the Nexus Group, an Indiana-based research firm specializing in property taxation. Kelly is also assistant professor of economics at Butler University and Indiana University; he previously served as the senior tax analyst for the Indiana State Tax Board. Wuensch previously worked as director of tax review at the Indiana State Tax Board and at the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute. Kelly, Wuensch and Thomas Hamilton, assistant professor of real estate in the Department of Finance at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, are joint recipients of a David C. Lincoln Fellowship in Land Value Taxation from the Lincoln Institute. This article is based on their study of Indiana's property tax system as part of their Fellowship project.

Total state and local revenue: Table/Chart 1 Sources are the Indiana State Tax Board and Indiana State Budget Agency Who pays the property tax: Table/Chart 2 Source is the Indiana State Tax Board.

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