I realize that the question posed in the title is going to be controversial. Seemingly, LOTS of people care about property taxes these days, judging by the expectations that the Nebraska Legislature should do something about them...and the petitions that are being circulated which would provide significant property tax relief via a constitutional amendment. But how much do people REALLY care?
In my county, we just received our 2019 property tax statements. The value of our house increased by 4.4%--which would be great if we were in the market to sell. Our total property tax bill increased by 4.4%, as well--which one wouldn't necessarily be surprised to see, assuming that every taxing authority that our taxes go to maintained their current levy.
So I pulled out last year's tax statement to do a little bit of comparison. School districts have taken a lot of heat in the past for being greedy and grabbing our property tax dollars. And--as is the case in many places--my school district takes just under 60% of my property tax dollars. But here's what I find interesting (and this is purely anecdotal):
- I ran into our school superintendent today. I've often told people that I could count on one hand the number of citizens who attended budget and tax hearings for the school district during the 12 years I was on the school board (2003-2015). I wondered if that had changed, so I asked him how many people showed up for those hearings. His answer: NONE.
- In comparing tax levies (not dollars, because the fact that my valuation went up inherently means that the tax dollars I pay are going to be more--absent DRASTIC DECREASES in levies by the taxing authorities)--I found that the school district, natural resources districts, and educational service unit (ESU), and ag society levies decreased; the county, city, vocational technology, and historical society levies raised slightly.
- The increase in dollars that the school district gets from our tax bill (again, just in my district), amounts to about 3.4%. From my days on the school board, that 3.4% increase amounts to about what the district would anticipate that its increase in labor costs would be (increases in salaries, increase insurance premiums paid for employees, etc.). Of course--as with most employers--a school district's labor costs make up a large chunk of the budget.
So, all of this raises some questions for me.
First, if we know that property taxes are assessed and collected locally, for local governing bodies, why is it that very few citizens bother to attend the budget and tax request meetings of those entities? It's easy enough to find out WHAT the entities are by looking at your tax statement from the previous year. Wouldn't it make sense for citizens to go to their representatives in their communities, and ask them what they're spending your money on?
Second, if we really want to reduce our taxes (not just shift them from one type of tax to another), shouldn't citizens be concerned about budget hearings? If the budgets of local taxing entities are rising, the money is going to come from somewhere.
I've made the case since I was on the Crete school board that we needed to hear from citizens who were concerned about taxing and spending--and yet I was disappointed when every budget and tax request meeting came around, and no one showed up. Indeed, Governor Ricketts made that very case in one of his weekly columns back in August.
I urge you and all Nebraskans to make sure your schools, city councils, and county boards are being wise with taxpayer money by talking directly with your locally elected representatives who make the decisions about property taxes. The legislative session at the State Capitol receives close coverage by the press, as it should. Elected officials need to hear from you and be held accountable. Yet, local property tax hikes often receive little publicity and pass largely unnoticed. Nebraskans don’t fully realize what’s happening until they get hit with a higher property tax bill.
Now, looking at the reduction in levies by some taxing authorities on my property tax bill, it looks to me like most of them are trying to cut the levies as assessed values rise, and hold relatively steady in their expenditures. But I haven't looked at their budgets, I don't know what things might be frivolous and could be cut. I don't know what things they may be cutting short in order to avoid raising taxes in this era of property tax frustration.
One of the things that elected officials often assume is this: "if no one is talking to us, and no one is complaining, and they keep electing us, then everything must be OK."
If we want to see changes in our tax and spending policy, it's going to take citizens who are willing to go to their local board meetings, ask questions, and inform themselves about what their local taxing entities are spending money on. And then those citizens will need to decide whether that's a good expenditure or a bad one. The state government is not likely to be able to provide the total fix that people seem to want, in my opinion. Even if the property tax initiative passes, unless spending issues are addressed, we're still going to be paying for the local services--it will just come from a different pot of money.