Stabilizing Property Taxes in Volatile Real Estate Markets

Joan Youngman and Jane Malme, July 1, 2005

Property taxes based on market value have many features that recommend them as a source of local government revenue. They promote visibility and accountability in public spending by providing property owners with a means of evaluating the costs and benefits of local government services. They can provide stable, independent local revenue that is not at the mercy of state budget surpluses or deficits. They are now considered to be proportional or even mildly progressive, in contrast to earlier economic views that presumed the tax to be regressive.

Against these strengths, the greatest challenge to a value-based property tax is political: taxpayers’ strong and completely understandable resistance to sharp increases in tax payments that reflect rising markets but not necessarily rising incomes with which to pay the tax increases. The best known and most dramatic response to this situation was rejection of the value-based tax system in California in 1978. When voters approved Proposition 13, they changed the tax base to the value of the property at the time of purchase or construction, with a maximum 2 percent annual inflation adjustment. For property held by the same owner since 1978, the inflation adjustment is applied to its value on the 1975–1976 tax roll.

This change has greatly altered California’s fiscal landscape. It has restricted the role of local governments, centralized service provision and decision making, and redistributed the tax burden from long-time residents to new property owners. Local governments now have an incentive to seek sales tax revenue by encouraging large retail establishments, such as auto malls, in what has been termed the “fiscalization of land use.” Can the property tax achieve greater stability and predictability without such drastic social and governmental costs? Table 1 illustrates the wide range of residential property tax levies in large metropolitan areas, a factor that presents additional challenges to formulating uniform policies or practical recommendations.

A Lincoln Institute seminar in April 2005 brought together public finance and assessment officials, policy analysts and scholars to consider alternate approaches to the recurrent problems that volatile real estate markets pose for value-based property taxes.

Problems Related to Market-Value Assessment

Discussion began with the incontrovertible observation, “Taxpayers do not like unpredictability.” In theory, reductions in tax rates could balance increases in property prices to maintain stability in actual tax payments under market-value assessments. This approach faces two obstacles. The first and most straightforward is governmental reluctance to reduce tax rates and forego increased revenues when rising values provide a cover for greater tax collection. The second is nonuniform price appreciation in different locations and for different types of property. When one segment of the tax base experiences a disproportionate value change, a corresponding change in the tax rate applied to the entire property class will not maintain level tax collections. California faced both difficulties in the years preceding adoption of Proposition 13. There, rapid residential appreciation was not matched by the lagging commercial sector, and a $7.1 billion state surplus fueled taxpayer cynicism as to the actual need for increased government revenues.

While rapid market shifts are the most challenging source of unpredictable tax changes, taxpayer “shocks” can also be caused simply by long delays in reassessment. Maintaining outdated values on the tax rolls achieves short-term predictability in tax bills, but at the expense of uniformity, accuracy and even legality. Long-postponed reassessments have been followed by tax revolts in many jurisdictions, both in this country and overseas.

Options for Addressing Value Shifts

Seminar participants reviewed the benefits and drawbacks of various measures to address these problems.

Circuit breakers, as their name implies, attempt to reduce a property tax “overload” by providing a refund or credit for taxes that exceed a set percentage of the property owner’s income. When funded by the state and administered as part of the state tax system, they have the dual benefit of protecting local revenue and targeting aid to the most needy taxpayers. At the same time, they require state funding and administration, and taxpayers must file tax returns to order to obtain these benefits. Like all programs that require income information, they sometimes encounter taxpayer resistance and consequent underutilization.

Homestead exemptions, available in most states, reduce assessments on the taxpayer’s primary residence. These exemptions are often granted without regard to taxpayer income, and so are not targeted to the most needy. In predominantly residential communities, this results in a significant loss of municipal revenues unless the tax rate is increased or the tax burden is shifted to other taxpayers. Like all preferential programs for homeowners, these exemptions fail to benefit renters, who bear a portion of the property tax burden and generally are less affluent than homeowners.

Tax deferral measures, often available to low-income elderly homeowners, permit unpaid taxes to accumulate as a lien against the property, to be paid after the residence changes hands. However, the desire to retain property clear of encumbrances has traditionally led homeowners to avoid making use of this option.

“Truth in taxation” legislation requires local governments to take various measures, such as publishing voter information and requesting ballot approval, to treat increases in tax collections in the same manner whether they are the result of growth in the tax base or increases in the tax rate. These enactments seek to counter the temptation to allow rates to remain constant while market values rise, thus increasing taxes and spending without budgetary accountability.

Limitations on annual total property tax collection increases, such as Proposition 2½ in Massachusetts, restrict overall levy growth but do not address unpredictable tax bill changes for specific taxpayers. For example, after several decades of tax stability, Boston taxpayers are now facing assessment shifts that reflect a downturn in the commercial property market with simultaneous explosive growth in certain residential values.

Limitations on annual tax increases for individual properties have enormous political appeal, but face three hazards. First, there is often pressure to make the phase-in period as long as possible, or even longer than possible. Montana provided for an extended 50-year phase-in of new assessments. Second, initial success at limiting increases to a certain percentage may lead to efforts to reduce that limit again. Oklahoma instituted a 5 percent limit and now faces pressure to reduce it to 3 percent. Finally, the “catch-up” of tax assessments when values stabilize or even drop elicits opposition of its own as taxpayers face increasing assessments while property values are flat or falling.

Assessment “freezes” take limitations on increases to their ultimate conclusion, prohibiting any increases despite changes in market values. They often are restricted to specific groups of taxpayers, such as elderly homeowners. Proposition 13 is a type of assessment freeze for all property, with only a 2 percent annual inflation adjustment in the tax base. These measures are in many respects equivalent to the long delays in reassessments that lead to nonuniformity and resistance to new valuations. After values are frozen taxpayers may seek to transfer that value to other family members, as they do in California, or to new residences, as in Texas.

Possible New Approaches

Seminar participants discussed methods for utilizing these and other measures to address the problems of unpredictability while minimizing the problems of inequitable distribution of the tax burden and maintenance of collections. A major distinction was drawn between approaches that moderate tax bill shifts but maintain a market-value base and those that alter assessments themselves. Altering assessments by limiting increases in value can result in situations where owners of similar properties pay very different tax bills. Furthermore, over time properties with average or lesser value appreciation can experience an increasingly greater share of taxes compared with properties that have had larger market increases. As a result wealthier taxpayers are more likely than those of moderate or low incomes to benefit from assessment limits.

To maintain a market-value tax base, with its benefits of uniformity, understandability and administrative efficiency, participants offered suggestions to stabilize rapid increases in tax payments due to significant shifts in the assessment base.

  • Eliminating stringent income limitations on eligibility for senior citizen deferral programs, expanding eligibility for circuit breakers and tax deferral, and including such measures in state rather than local tax relief programs would allow more taxpayers to participate. A state could establish a property tax deferral fund to reimburse local jurisdictions for delayed collections.
  • Classification and taxation of property according to use is a common means of taxing commercial and industrial properties at a higher rate than residential properties. Changing the class rates to accommodate a shift in the value base can be an appropriate short-term remedy, but may have harmful economic consequences in the long term. In Massachusetts the permitted shift of the share of the total tax levy from residential to commercial property in a municipality is subject to statutory limits. The recent combined acceleration of residential values and downturn of commercial values would have resulted in a substantial shift of taxes to homeowners in the City of Boston and a few other urban centers. Thus the legislature permitted a temporary increase of the share to be borne by the commercial class, at local option, but required a return to an even more limited class share difference within a five-year period.
  • Alternative methods of tax collection, such as credit card, direct debit or more frequent payment schedules, may offer greater financial convenience than the more common annual and semiannual billings.
  • Shorter periods between revaluations avoid the “sticker shock” that accompanies dramatic shifts and increases in value when reassessment occurs infrequently. Annual reassessments using computer-assisted mass appraisals offer greater stability and uniformity. Tax bills that reflect current values, rather than fractional assessments or outdated figures, are easier for taxpayers to understand.

Even significant increases in assessed value, if relatively uniform across the jurisdiction, do not result in increased taxes for most property owners if the municipal budget requires no additional property tax revenues and the tax rate is reduced proportionately. Better information about the relationship between assessed value and the tax rate will make it less likely that taxpayers will place the blame for their higher taxes on the assessors and their assessments. They may consider instead the adequacy of funding sources available to local governments, the effect of exemptions that reduce the property tax base, and unfunded mandates that require additional local expenditures.

The property tax, as the most important source of autonomous local revenue, often bears the brunt of criticism for the social, economic and fiscal pressures on local communities. Among these pressures are increased costs of new educational, environmental and security requirements, reductions in state and federal assistance, changing demographics and economic conditions, and increasing numbers of exemptions. Attention to these issues can clarify the debate over the role and burden of property taxes and the effectiveness of various tax relief measures.

Improving Educational Resources

There is an urgent need to provide government officials, lawmakers and the public with better information on property tax policy choices. Tax revolts and anti-tax initiatives make compelling news stories, but they should be balanced by concise and accessible information that sheds light on the problem and its solution. There is also a need for periodic research on such topics as:

  • The effects over time of assessment and tax limits on the distribution of the property tax burden and on revenue growth, and the full costs to residents of additional fees and charges imposed to offset decreases in local property tax revenues.
  • The effectiveness of property tax relief measures, and the distribution of their benefits across taxpayer classes.
  • “Tax expenditure” studies to quantify the cost of exemptions, and exploration of the use of payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTS) for tax-exempt nonprofit property owners to pay for municipal services received.
  • Assessment quality studies to evaluate both individual assessment equity and the distribution of the tax burden.

The Institute will be collaborating with the seminar participants and others in continuing these discussions and will undertake further research and the preparation of publications on these property tax issues in the coming year.

Joan Youngman is senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, where she chairs the Department of Valuation and Taxation. Her writings include Legal Issues in Property Valuation and Taxation (1994), and two books co-edited with Jane Malme, An International Survey of Taxes on Land and Buildings (1994) and The Development of Property Taxation in Economies in Transition (2001). She is a contributing author on the property taxation chapter of Jerome R. Hellerstein and Walter Hellerstein’s State and Local Taxation (7th ed. 2001), and writes on property taxation for State Tax Notes.

Jane Malme, fellow of the Lincoln Institute, is an attorney, author and consultant on property tax policy, law and administration in the U.S. and internationally. She directed the Massachusetts Department of Revenue’s Bureau of Local Assessment as it implemented major property tax reforms from 1978 to 1990.

The Lincoln Institute seminar on Property Taxes and Market Values—Responding to Post-Proposition 13 Challenges in April 2005 included participants from many states, including California, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York and Oklahoma. The discussion leader was Alan Dornfest, property tax policy supervisor in the Idaho State Tax Commission.

The Institute will continue this discussion at the International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO) Annual Conference in Anchorage, Alaska, in September. Jane Malme will moderate a policy seminar on Property Tax Viability in Volatile Markets with speakers Alan Dornfest; Mark Haveman, director of development for the Minnesota Taxpayers Association and project director for its Center for Public Finance Research; and Andrew Reschovsky, professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin’s LaFollette School of Public Affairs.