Price Volatility and Property Tax Limitations
The potential for sharp and unpredictable assessment increases is an important source of dissatisfaction with the property tax. Rapid price rises that are accurately and promptly reflected in assessed valuations can leave homeowners responsible for cash payments on paper gains that are unexpected, uncontrollable, and possibly short-lived. Two decades ago, this situation paved the way for adoption of California's Proposition 13, which rejected fair market value as a basis for assessment.
Increasing valuations do not necessarily produce a corresponding rise in property tax bills, since a higher assessment base could raise equivalent revenue with a smaller tax rate. This solution is not feasible, however, when prices increase disproportionately only in particular neighborhoods or for particular types of property.
What other means are available to address price volatility and its impact on property tax rates? A number of states have recently introduced limitations on annual valuation increases. These measures avoid extreme assessment increases but may still allow assessments to match fair market values at some point in the future. They substitute a non-market value basis for assessment and diminish uniformity by distinguishing between those properties that are assessed on the basis of current values and those that are not.
Assessment Limitations in Washington and Texas
In the November 1997 elections, voters in Washington state approved a referendum generally limiting increases in assessed valuation to 15 percent a year on all classes of taxable property. If a property's market value rises more than 60 percent, one year's assessment may reflect no more than one-quarter of that increase. A similar measure strongly supported by business representatives was passed by the Republican legislature but vetoed by Gov. Gary Locke (D), who would have limited it to homeowners.
This case raises an important point concerning uniformity and distribution of the tax burden. Phase-in provisions ease the burden on owners of rapidly appreciating property but correspondingly increase the relative share of the tax borne by owners experiencing slower growth, or no growth, in property value. While tax limitations are generally promoted as protection for homeowners, residential benefits may pale in comparison to commercial gains.
Supporters of the Washington referendum urged passage "to soften a tax blow that could be devastating to a homeowner on a fixed income." Yet major funding for the campaign came from industrial giants, including Microsoft, Intel, Hewlett Packard, Boeing and Weyerhaeuser. Opponents, including King County assessor Scott Noble, argued that the tax benefits "will go disproportionately to the large corporations that are bankrolling the campaign because of their much higher property values." On the other hand, restricting such provisions to residential property introduces another level of non-uniformity to the tax.
Texas voters chose this split valuation alternative in November, approving a measure that limits increases in assessed values of residential homestead property, but not business property, to 10 percent a year. The president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association said this provision will "keep a terribly hot neighborhood from getting sort of a sticker shock."
Critics saw the irony of this action. One wrote, "If the Texas Legislature had offered voters a chance to cap appraisal increases on their homes a few years ago, lawmakers would have been lauded as heroes. Angry homeowners were storming the offices of appraisal districts in the early and mid-1990s, demanding relief from double-digit increases in the appraised value of their homes and the prospect of significant property tax hikes. . . Nothing happened. Now that appraisal increases have fallen to three percent or so, the Legislature is offering voters a chance to cap the increases by changing the state Constitution. . . ." Ironically, before the price rises of the 1990s, Texas tax protests centered on whether assessments reflected falling property values quickly enough in the regional recession of the 1980s. For example, Harris County, which includes Houston, saw challenges to one-quarter of all its tax valuations in 1984 and 1985.
A Legislative Approach in Montana
Annual increases of 10 or 15 percent do not necessarily prevent assessed valuations from reaching full market levels. However, Montana lawmakers responded this year to dramatic value increases with an even more drastic measure. After studies reported that residential and commercial property values had increased by an average of 43 percent statewide since the last reassessment, the legislature required this change to be phased in at a rate of only two percent annually-taking 50 years to enter the tax rolls completely. Court challenges to this provision could raise an interesting question as to how long a phase-in period is compatible with state constitutional provisions requiring uniformity in assessment.
Assessment Reform in Ontario
Large valuation increases may be due to assessment lags as well as to price rises. One of the most startling examples of outdated tax valuation is found in Toronto-a surprise to U.S. observers who normally expect a high level of administrative efficiency from their northern neighbor. At the September conference of the International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO) in Toronto, a panel of speakers brought together by the Lincoln Institute explored this situation. The potential for huge valuation increases stems not so much from extraordinary market activity as from extraordinary assessment inactivity. Metropolitan Toronto has not had a full-scale reassessment since1954-and that was based on 1940 market values.
Attorney Jack Walker described the public as generally supportive of current tax reform efforts, which encompass the entire province of Ontario. By contrast, a 1992 reassessment proposal for Metropolitan Toronto alone sparked such protest from residential and small business taxpayers that the proposal was abandoned. As a result, the 1997 measure explicitly addresses the concerns of many taxpayers groups. Professor David Amborski of Ryerson Polytechnic University explained that it would ensure current value assessments and regular updates. In addition, it will eliminate the business occupancy tax, permit different tax rates for different classes of property, provide special treatment for senior citizens and disabled taxpayers, and reduce taxes on agricultural and open space lands.
Thus, Toronto has also chosen to soften the impact of large assessment increases at the expense of uniformity. In this case, where municipal valuations were so out of date, the net effect may be judged an improvement in assessment equity. It will be important to evaluate the experiences of other jurisdictions struggling with the challenge of balancing uniformity and acceptability to see if they can make the same claim.
Joan Youngman is senior fellow and director of the Institute's Program in the Taxation of Land and Buildings. An attorney specializing in property tax issues, she also writes a column for State Tax Notes, published by Tax Analysts.
Joseph Turner, "Ref. 47 Debate: Do Tax Savings Justify Change?" Takoma News-Tribune, October 23, 1997, p. A1 (quoting Rep. Brian Thomas (R-Renton))
2 Tom Brown, "Big Guns Back Property-Tax Lid," Seattle Times, October 24, 1997, p. B3.
3Clay Robison, "Measure Would Cap Hike in Residential Appraisals," The Houston Chronicle, November 2, 1997, p.2.
4Michele Kay, "Tax Appraisal Cap on Ballot," Austin American-Statesman, October 20, 1997, p. A1.