By Joe Blubaugh
Despite record-breaking temperatures, an overflow crowd of frustrated taxpayers crammed into the Shawnee County Commission chambers recently to voice concerns about rising property taxes driven largely by growing home values.
The majority of people spoke against the county’s $140.7 million budget, a 10.4% increase over the 2023 budget.
For three hours, people voiced frustration with the steep increase in their property’s valuation and the subsequent growth in their property tax bill.
Shawnee County resident Rocky Bartlow acknowledged the appraisal process was likely correct, but said people who aren’t planning to sell their homes are being burdened with higher tax bills because values are skyrocketing.
“The problem is the only way for me to receive any benefit from that is to sell the house, and I don’t want to sell the house,” Bartlow said. “I plan on being carried out in a body bag.”
It’s a scene playing out across the state as local governments hold public hearings on their budgets required by state law.
Local budgets continue to rise and some taxpayers are frustrated as their property taxes increase, and they feel their voices aren’t being heard.
The interest shows that legislative action in recent years didn’t resolve concerns over rising property taxes. Now, lawmakers, local officials, and taxpayers alike are gearing up for action in the next legislative session.
But local government officials are pushing back against the concerns, saying the budget growth is needed to simply provide the same services.
“Inflation hurts the county as well as individuals,” said Bill Riphahn, chairman of the Shawnee County Commission. “We are consumers. We buy trucks. We buy asphalt. We buy all sorts of things. What hurts the general consumer hurts us as well.”
Shawnee County resident Robert Williams said the government still needed to focus on cost cutting.
“We don’t hear a lot here about downsizing, about cutting,” Williams said. “When things cost too much for me, I simply don’t buy them.”
At a recent Johnson County Commission hearing, Commissioner Janeé Hanzlick reminded the public that county taxes are only 20% of their total tax bill.
“Even if we eliminated and went to zero mill levy, you would still have 80% of your bill,” Hanzlick said. “That would also mean you would have no ambulance service. You would have no road service.”
2021 Truth in Taxation Legislation
Shrinking inventories, historically low interest rates and the impacts of the pandemic all converged to drive up Kansas property values by double digits starting in 2020.
Local taxing authorities, including counties, cities, townships and school districts, collect nearly all of the property taxes levied in Kansas. High inflation caused their budgets to expand even to simply provide the same amount of services their constituents rely on.
Kansas lawmakers began to take notice.
In 2021, the Kansas Legislature passed Senate Bill 13 with the goal of slowing down property tax hikes. The legislation, also known by supporters as the “Truth in Taxation” law, mandates that local taxing authorities hold public hearings, like the Shawnee County public meeting, when they intend to exceed the revenue neutral rate.
Republican Sen. Caryn Tyson is one of the architects of the legislation. She said property tax transparency was a major goal for slowing down possible property tax hikes, or at least making it so the public understood why they were happening.
“We want local control. We want them to work within whatever means that they need,” Tyson stated. “However, they weren’t being transparent.”
What is the revenue neutral rate?
Revenue neutral means the tax rate for the current tax year that would generate the same property tax revenue as the previous tax year.
In simpler terms, if a taxing entity plans to increase the budget based on increased property tax revenues, they most likely will need to exceed the revenue neutral rate.
In Kansas, property taxes can rise in two ways: taxing authorities can increase the tax rate, or tax rates can stay the same and property taxes may still rise as valuations increase.
The intent of the Truth in Taxation law was to highlight local taxing authorities’ budgets and trigger a transparency mechanism when it increased year over year.
When a local budget exceeds the revenue neutral rate, it initiates a mandatory public hearing, which must occur between August 20th and September 20th each year.
There are many local taxing authorities
Another complication in the property tax process is the sheer number of local taxing authorities.
In Douglas County, there are 45 local units of government that levy property taxes. That ranges from the county to cities, cemeteries and drainage districts.
For most taxpayers, their local school district is typically the largest recipient of property taxes.
Out of the 45 taxing authorities in Douglas County, seven did not exceed the revenue neutral rate, while the other 38 proposed budget increases and proceeded with public hearings.
At both the Shawnee County and Johnson County hearings, commissioners voted to exceed the revenue neutral rate, allowing them to adopt their proposed growing budgets in future meetings.
What could happen in 2024 legislative session?
Lawmakers could take further action aimed at simplifying the property tax process or reinstating a cap on tax increases.
SB 13, the bill that created the new tax hearings, also repealed a previous property tax cap.
During the 2023 legislative session, the Senate passed an amendment to the Kansas Constitution to cap valuation growth at four percent in any year. The House will consider the amendment when the session resumes in January.
Republican Sen. Mike Thompson of Shawnee also expressed concerns about every property in Kansas being subject to multiple taxing authorities operating independently of each other.
He said lawmakers might want to look at consolidating property taxes.
“I think there has got to be some way to make them operate in such a manner so in aggregate they cannot raise taxes that much,” Thompson said. “The county government, the taxing authorities, are thumbing their nose at our constituents, at our taxpayers.”
Thompson alluded to this legislation during his comments at the Johnson County budget hearing.
“I’ll be paying very close attention tonight. If this goes up, if all these other tax authorities continue to increase it, then you think Senate Bill 13 is bad? I’ve got some ideas,” Thompson remarked.
Joe Blubaugh reports on the Kansas Statehouse and government for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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