Opinion Columns & Blogs

Legislators should not be so quick to blame local governments for property tax spikes

Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star, Majority Leader of the Idaho House of Representatives, tries to explain state and city budgeting differences in relation to how property taxes are assessed and instituted. Rep. Moyle joined a group of GOP elected officials at a town meeting Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019 at the Meridian Senior Center in Meridian.
Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star, Majority Leader of the Idaho House of Representatives, tries to explain state and city budgeting differences in relation to how property taxes are assessed and instituted. Rep. Moyle joined a group of GOP elected officials at a town meeting Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019 at the Meridian Senior Center in Meridian. doswald@idahostatesman.com

When my wife and I were looking for a newspaper to buy in 2005, we looked all over the country, weighing not only where we wanted to live but also cost of living, health care costs and property taxes.

We looked at a newspaper in Middlebury, Vermont, and were excited about the possibility until we realized that we probably wouldn’t be able to afford a house in Middlebury, and even if we could stretch and buy a house, we certainly wouldn’t be able to afford the property taxes.

When we started looking at the Kuna Melba News in Kuna, one of the attractive features that jumped out at us were the affordable property taxes.

At the time, property taxes in Kuna were about $1,130 per $100,000 of property value — and that was before the homeowners exemption. The first house we rented, a brand new, three-bedroom, 2.5-bath, two-story, single-family house in the Crimson Point subdivision, just west of Ten Mile Road, was assessed at $147,600. Had we owned it, we would have qualified for the homeowners exemption, the net taxable value would have been $73,800, and our property tax bill would have been $832! Per year! Our tax bill in Vermont would have been $832 per month.

So to Idaho we moved (not just because of the taxes, but that was certainly a consideration).

The issue of property taxes in Idaho, however, seems to be coming to a head. Idaho Statesman reporter Hayley Harding had a fantastic piece recently taking a close look at rising property taxes in the Treasure Valley and telling the stories of some of our retired neighbors who are struggling to pay their property taxes.

Shortly thereafter, Statesman reporter Cynthia Sewell covered a Republican town hall meeting in Meridian at which several state legislators lambasted local governments over the way they do their budgets leading to skyrocketing property taxes.

“This is absolute madness,” said Rep. James Holtzclaw, R-Meridian. “Absolute madness.”

“The only way you are ever going to get the problem solved is to prevent the locals from increasing their budgets,” said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star. “Somehow you have to rein in these local governments.”

They compared the way the state does its budgeting (estimating revenues then setting budgets based on expected revenue) with the way cities and counties do their budgets (how much do we need to spend, then tax people on how much money we need). Which is true and perhaps a valid point.

But cities could turn around and argue, “So which police officers would you like us to lay off? When shall we turn off the sewer system to save money? Should we close and sell the library, then? Which fires should we not respond to?”

City and county budgets, for the most part, are the result of the cost of providing basic services, like police, fire, library, sewer and water.

It is worth noting that the state hasn’t exactly been tightening its belt. While Holtzclaw complains about property taxes going up 10%, the state’s income tax collections are expected to increase by $303 million, or 15.5 percent from 2017 to 2020. Corporate income taxes are up $42 million from 2017 to 2020, or 16.5 percent. And sales taxes? That’s an increase of $285 million from 2017 to 2020, or a 17 percent increase. Of course, this is due primarily to growth in Idaho and not because legislators raised taxes. But the point remains that legislators have a lot more money to work with now than they did just two years ago.

So it’s pretty strange to complain about “the locals” spending like crazy when you, yourself, are rolling in dough.

The state is expecting to add $630 million in added revenue in just three budget buckets in just three years, but no talk of how that money might help property taxpayers.

Because there are other causes, aside from city budgets, of significant increases on people’s property tax bills. One thing is school supplemental levies, which some people argue make up for being shortchanged by the state in education funding. Idaho consistently ranks at the bottom of lists of per-pupil funding. And despite increasing state spending on education, Idaho still has not recovered from recession-era cuts, according to a recent report in Idaho Ed News. Idaho’s inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending has fallen since 2008, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report, as reported by Idaho Ed News.

Another item on your tax bill? School bonds to build new schools, because the state doesn’t help fund the construction of new buildings brought about by growth. Also, schools can’t collect impact fees, so they have to get the money from property taxes.

Further, cities in the Treasure Valley pay Valley Regional Transit to run the bus system, because the state doesn’t have a dedicated fund for public transit, one of the few states in the country that doesn’t fund public transit. And the state won’t allow cities or counties an option for local-option taxes — a certain amount added to the sales tax in that city or county — that would shift some of that tax burden from property tax to sales tax.

No doubt, property taxes are getting out of hand and are starting to pose a problem. We’re going to have to look at solutions soon. Is clamping down on city spending a part of the solution? Absolutely. But before the state legislators start throwing stones, they might look at their own glass house.

Scott McIntosh is the Opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at smcintosh@idahostatesman.com or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.


What is this column all about?

This column shares the personal opinions of Idaho Statesman opinion editor Scott McIntosh on current topics and issues in the Treasure Valley, in Idaho and nationally. It represents one person’s opinion and is intended to spur a conversation and solicit others’ opinions on the subject. It is intended to be part of an ongoing civil discussion with the ultimate goal of providing solutions to community problems and making this a better place to live, work and play. Readers are encouraged to express their thoughts by submitting a letter to the editor. Click on “Submit a letter or opinion” at idahostatesman.com/opinion.

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Always full of opinions and tolerant of others, Scott McIntosh is the opinions editor for the Idaho Statesman. He has won dozens of state and national awards, including Best Editorial from the Idaho Press Club for 2017.