When housing values rise, so do property taxes and concerns about how those taxes are collected

Austin, Texas is a hot real estate market which means housing prices are going up – which means property taxes are also rising and this has some homeowners up in arms about how the city and state pursue property taxes.

The arrival of this year’s appraisal notices — which in Travis County showed homes’ average market values jumped 12.6 percent and average taxable values rose 8 percent for 2014 — is sparking a push for reform. Similar jumps have occurred in Williamson and Hays counties.

Real Values for Texas, a statewide group advocating for property tax reform, local officials and others say they believe enough momentum is building around the state to put pressure on the Legislature to fix what they say is a flawed property tax system. The issue is an especially hot one in Austin, where property values have risen at a much faster rate than wages in recent years, leaving more and more area homeowners saying they are struggling to pay their property tax bills.

At issue is what can be done. Market forces generally dictate home values. And with no state income tax, the state government and local taxing entities rely heavily on property tax for revenue to fund schools and many local services…

A key problem, critics say, is that the current system has shifted a disproportionate share of the burden of paying for schools and local services on homeowners, in favor of commercial and corporate interests who can afford to appeal their values and win big reductions year after year. The share of property taxes from homeowners to support public schools grew from 45 percent to 54 percent over a 12-year period, while commercial and industrial owners’ share has declined to less than 20 percent. (Other sectors, from oil and gas to personal property, make up the rest.)

One way to read this would be to see this in a long line of American homeowner complaints about property taxes. This has been a common theme in recent decades, famously illustrated by the Prop 13 campaign in California in the 1970s. Homeowners may enjoy owning a home but they tend to resent continually rising requests for money for local governments, even as they tend to want good, or even better, local services. Most homeowners want rising housing values as this increases the value of their investment yet don’t necessarily want to pay for it while living there.

Yet, the property tax reform suggestions here are interesting. Just how much should local homeowners pay compared to corporations? Is the best comparison to look at the rates each pays or the cumulative percentages each group contributes to the local pot of tax money? This could be related to a larger issue that goes beyond property taxes: what kind of tax breaks should corporations get from municipalities? This is a difficult issue to sort out as communities like jobs and important businesses yet homeowners tend to resent “handouts” for corporations that they think could afford to pay more.

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