Back in the 1980s, Missouri property values got so out of whack that two identical houses side by side could have vastly different tax bills.
One that had sold recently would be taxed at current values. A longtime neighbor was likely to have a much lower bill because the county assessor hadn’t increased that home’s value for many years.
The Missouri General Assembly fixed that by requiring counties to conduct regular appraisals. The state reimbursed the counties for some of the cost.
But now, because of state cutbacks, we could be going back to those bad old days.
County assessors throughout Missouri have seen a significant dip over the last five years in how much they are reimbursed to assess business and residential properties.
Many assessors say they have had to reduce staff and find creative ways to do more with less.
Adequate funding to properly assess properties is critical as the area’s housing market and property values continue to fluctuate. Some county officials said they are scrambling to find additional resources to make up for the reimbursement shortfall they expect will continue in 2013, which is an assessment year.
Members of the Missouri State Assessors Association plan to discuss at their annual meeting, which starts Tuesday, how they can address their concerns to state lawmakers, said Mark Reynolds, president of the association and assessor for Johnson County, Mo.
“Everything we do each year costs more,” Reynolds said. “The costs are going up, but we are not getting any more money.”
In 2007, the state reimbursed counties $6 for each property parcel. This allowed assessors to hire enough staff to appraise thousands of houses, business properties and other parcels.
But state budget cuts gradually have reduced that funding.
It fell to $4 per property in 2009, to $3.41 in 2011 and to $3 this year, the lowest allowed under Missouri law.
Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders worries that eventually the state stipend will be cut to zero. He waved the red flag to county legislators last week, alerting them to the possibility of less frequent property appraisals.
Sanders said the implications are clear, considering that the process of assessing hasn’t gotten less expensive.
In 2007, the state reimbursement to Jackson County amounted to $1.7 million for the more than 285,000 parcels assessed, he said.
By 2012, the county received just over $875,000, he said.
Jackson County has been able to cover the gap by dipping into reserve funds, but that money is running thin and the county might have to look for alternatives.
“Clearly, we are crossing the budgetary Rubicon,” Sanders told legislators.
County assessors throughout the area said they are pressed by the reduced funding, which may affect the services they provide.
“We have had to reduce staff, and we are doing what we have to do to get things done,” said Bob Huston, Cass County assessor. “But if they continue to cut, well, it is going to get to the point where we can only get so much done.”
Without adequate staffing, some properties may not get assessed, creating inequities in home values, several county assessors said.
For example, someone who has lived in a home for a number of years could end up paying less than someone who recently bought a similar home.
“But if this continues, and I don’t see how it wouldn’t, it will have detrimental effects,” said Cathy Rinehart, Clay County assessor. “We won’t be able to assess as efficiently or as fairly as we could because we won’t have the people to do the work.”
Rinehart said school districts and other taxing entities probably would suffer and not receive proper tax income. Clay County will assess more than 90,000 parcels in 2013, she said.
“You can only automate so much,” Rinehart said. “You can’t sit in the office and assess. You have to go out into the field.”
Reynolds said many counties are reducing services and staff, but the cuts could eliminate the assessor’s offices in the smaller counties.
“They are scraping by, but when you take away that much money, they are not able to do it,” he said.