Editorials

Jackson County property value hikes are too much, too fast. What can you do?

In assessment shock? Don’t panic just yet. Take action to avoid that big tax hit

Assessments on single family homes in Jackson County were up 18 percent on average this year, but some are far higher. But county officials say you can steps to challenge the increase and avoid a bigger tax bill.
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Assessments on single family homes in Jackson County were up 18 percent on average this year, but some are far higher. But county officials say you can steps to challenge the increase and avoid a bigger tax bill.

The national debt, at $22 trillion and counting, amounts to over $67,000 per person. Thankfully, at least for this generation, that bill isn’t coming due anytime soon.

But while the federal government has been able to borrow and print enough money to put off that day of reckoning, state and local governments don’t have that luxury. They’re expected to pay their bills, and taxpayers to pay the tab. Thus, the current Jackson County property assessments that have residents and business owners furious and frenzied.

When the government moves to reassess your property’s value, as it must by law each year in Kansas and every two years in Missouri, it’s unsettling under the best of circumstances. And these are not the best of circumstances, especially under Missouri’s every-two-years assessment schedule, which can force the county appraiser’s office to play catch-up with a growing real estate market.

That sets up the old taxes two-step: Your property valuation goes up markedly, followed by your temperature. And that’s certainly what’s been going on lately in Jackson County, with valuations rising astronomically in some cases. Residential property values have risen an average of 18% countywide and commercial property values twice that.

Consider, if you haven’t already, how such increases compare to inflation of about 2%.

Even if the county appraiser’s new numbers are in the neighborhood of your property’s value — and let’s be honest, county appraisals have tended to drag behind the market through the years, to many owners’ advantage — an abrupt 300% or more increase in your assessed valuation can be more than maddening. It can be frightening.

Unless local taxing entities lower their levies, huge hikes in actual taxes owed can threaten fixed-income and longtime homeowners’ ability to stay in their houses. Struggling small businesses living on paper-thin margins could also be at real risk, having to absorb sharply higher tax bills than they’d budgeted for.

If the county assessor is in a tight spot — by law having to assess property values without passion, prejudice or sympathy — then many property owners are in an absolute vise.

The good news is that elected officials in the various taxing entities can reduce tax rates and still receive the same revenues or more thanks to higher overall property values. In fact, in Missouri, the Hancock Amendment limits local governments to an overall 5% increase in revenue on unchanged properties — though, take note, individual tax bills can be higher. Kansas City Public Schools is exempt from that limit, but the district certainly can and should adhere to it voluntarily.

Ultimately, you need to decide how much you trust local taxing entities to reduce your tax rates enough to offset your property’s jump in perceived value.

County Executive Frank White acknowledges he brought assessment director Gail McCann Beatty on board last year to assess property without regard to the consequences. But now those consequences are being felt, by real and vulnerable people. It’s untenable and, indeed, wrong for the county to try to catch up to a rising real estate market — or to try to make up for being behind it for years — in a single stroke. Police officers don’t ticket every infraction they see; likewise, property owners deserve humane, reasonable assessments of their land’s worth.

No one should be expecting the Country Club Plaza treatment, which got its $375 million assessment cut by more than half a couple years ago. But livable and incremental are good objectives.

Absent that, it’s now up to property owners to appeal inaccurate appraisals. The deadline for an informal appeal was Monday, but a formal appeal can be filed with the county Board of Equalization until July 8.

Without relief at the appraisal end of the equation, your trust in local officials — and their obligation to reduce tax rates to offset jumps in property value — will be sorely tested later this year.

Either way, as opposed to the federal government’s devil-may-care budgeting, the local day of reckoning is nigh.

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