Introducing Value-based Property Taxation in Poland

Jane Malme and Dennis Robinson, March 1, 1999

As a next step in the economic reforms begun in the post-Soviet period, momentum is growing in Poland for the introduction of a property tax based on market value. The recently established Department of Local Government Taxes and Cadastre within the Ministry of Finance is responsible for carrying out the reforms, and has invited the Lincoln Institute and other international organizations to advise them on developing an ad valorem property tax system.

Last October several Polish officials visited the Institute to learn about property taxation in the United States, and subsequently the Polish government requested support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to bring international advisors to Poland for a series of seminars and meetings.

In January we traveled to Warsaw to participate in a week-long program on the legal and administrative framework needed to implement an ad valorem system. We made presentations at two seminars: one at the Sejm, the Polish Parliament, for its members and local government officials; and another at the Ministry of Finance for central government officials, professional experts and other interested parties. Our meetings with department officials focused on the draft laws being prepared by the ministry for introduction to the parliament later this spring.

The proposed ad valorem tax on real property in Poland will replace three existing taxes on urban, agricultural and forest property that are based on non-value-based rates per square meter of land and buildings. These taxes were introduced originally with purely fiscal objectives to expand the tax base beyond income and to capture wealth being diverted into real property assets. After the Soviet period, property taxes were recognized as an appropriate source of revenue for local governments. Since 1991 the revenues from the three existing taxes have been assigned solely to local governments (gminas).

The economic reforms introduced in the past decade by Deputy Prime Minister for Finance Leszak Balcerowicz have now reached such a stage of maturity that a market value-based tax on property is both feasible and desirable. There is an active and growing real estate market, including privatization of land holdings by local governments and secondary sales of residential and commercial properties. Ad valorem taxation will offer a stable source of revenue with a potentially broad and expanding tax base for local governments. It will provide the benefits of a more equitable distribution on taxes, as well as greater fiscal transparency and accountability.

An earlier USAID-funded feasibility study project in Krakow, in which the Institute also participated, resulted in legislative proposals for an ad valorem property tax in 1995. However, those efforts stalled in the face of complexities of land surveying, land registration and assessment administration.

Benefits and Obstacles

In this renewed effort, Polish officials are also focusing on the non-fiscal benefits of a value-based property tax, including its potential as a stimulus of real estate markets and mortgage credit institutions and as a tool for urban revitalization and more efficient land use. W. Jan Brzeski, president of the Krakow Real Estate Institute and adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister, has contributed to an understanding of these non-fiscal benefits through previous Lincoln Institute-sponsored research and education programs in Poland and other transition economies.

Considerable progress has been made in addressing some of the institutional obstacles to an ad valorem property tax that stalled the 1995 proposal. There is acknowledgment that a property tax information system and fiscal cadastre can be developed independently of title registries and land surveys that are as yet incomplete. Mass appraisal concepts and methods are more readily understood now and are viewed as opening new opportunities to the appraisal profession. Local governments have developed greater experience and influence to lobby for an autonomous source of revenue and greater independence in fiscal decision-making. Although local administrative capacity and expertise remain a concern for the over 2400 gminas, a possible solution may be found in placing fiscal cadastre and mass appraisal functions in the newly created regional governments (Powiats).

Discussions with Ministry officials concerning policy issues and implementation strategy focused on how to define market valuation in the law and how to educate local officials and taxpayers on its meaning and application. Current Polish law requires that detailed descriptions of taxation methods be written into legislation and that the local elected council approve the calculations. There is concern about an appropriate appeals system that will recognize both taxpayers’ rights and the government’s ability to achieve defensible mass appraisal models from less mature real estate markets. There is also a growing awareness of the importance of educating the public on the benefits and responsibilities associated with an ad valorem property tax.

The need to estimate implementation costs, develop effective administrative arrangements and assess the potential impacts of an ad valorem system has led some officials to propose one or more pilot projects before full implementation. However, this approach must be weighed against the possibility of losing the political momentum to enact ad valorem taxation in this parliament if legislative action is delayed until after pilot projects are completed.

Jane Malme is an attorney and fellow of the Lincoln Institute. She has researched and advised on property tax policy and administration for transitional economies and is preparing a series of case studies on the development of market value-based taxation in several countries. She is also a legal adviser on property taxation to USAID tax reform assistance programs in the Russian Federation.

Dennis Robinson, vice president for programs and operations, has worked on fiscal cadastre systems in Central and Eastern Europe and throughout Latin America.