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Sharing the Pain of Property Tax Reform

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By Lowell L. Kalapa

Utilizing a means or income test as the basis for providing relief to real property taxpayers was the focus of our discussion last week. How to pay for it and still keep the system fair and equitable will be the target of this week’s discussion.
As noted in earlier discussions, nearly every county will be looking at increases in real property taxes in the next fiscal year. The increases will take the shape of either increases in valuations, as is the case on Kauai and the west side of the Big Island, or in rate increases, as will be the case for Honolulu and Maui. For a variety of reasons, running county government has gotten a lot more expensive as the growth in the tax base has not kept pace with the way county officials like to spend that money.
So if taxes are going up, what can be done to insure that the climb is not so steep and that those who really cannot afford higher property tax bills are provided relief? Well, the tax relief is that means test mechanism called the circuit breaker. The tax burden is stopped much like when an electrical circuit breaker is tripped because there is an overload of electrical current. A ceiling is set at either 3% or 5% of the household’s income and if the tax, as calculated, exceeds that amount, then the excess is forgiven or refunded making the owner’s burden no more than the amount represented by the 3% or 5% ceiling.
Conversely then, if one looks at how the counties currently provide tax relief to homeowners one will find it rather inefficient. As noted earlier, the home exemption is a dole out merely because a person owns his or her own home and is blind to the financial need of the homeowner. As a result, a person with a million dollar income will get the same amount of value excluded in the form of the home exemption as a person who is living solely on Social Security. Thus, asking a person with a million income to pay a little more for county government is not as difficult as asking the Social Security beneficiary to pay ten cents more.
Thus, one way to make the system more fair and equitable is to adopt the circuit breaker approach to tax relief while dropping the home exemption altogether. What? Do away with the home exemption? Heresy you say! Well think about those taxpayers who could afford the extra $160 to $320 their home exemptions represent. And more than likely, most homeowners fall into an income category where they itemize their tax deductions for federal and state income taxes. For those people, the federal and state government end up picking up about a third of the real property tax bill as it reduces the amount the homeowner has to pay in income taxes.
Further, by “taking back” all that value represented by the home exemption, there will be more value in the tax base. Thus, the rate that county elected officials will need to generate the needed revenues will not have to go up by as much had they not ditched the home exemption.
Now at first blush, taking away the home exemption means change and no one likes change. We are all so comfortable with the status quo. However, this change will mean that the truly poor are not forced out of their homes because of an excessive burden of property taxes. It makes sure that those who can afford to pay their fair share don’t get unneeded tax relief in the form of a home exemption or for that matter multiple home exemptions just because they are older than other homeowners.
But more importantly, without the smoke and mirrors of a home exemption that can be used to disguise how much it really costs to run our county government, taxpayers will have a better idea of just how their tax dollars are being spent.
Knowing that every dollar of value will be subject to the tax rate imposed by elected officials, homeowners will be more vigilant about just how their homes are assessed or valued for tax purposes. Making sure the assessments are accurate will hold county assessors more accountable for their valuations and judgements.
Okay, the switch is not going to be easy, after all, we have had this property tax system for nearly three- quarters of a century. But if there is to be true tax relief for those who cannot afford the property tax burden and if there is to be more accountability in the valuation of real property and more responsiveness to just how much people are willing to pay for county government, then this change has to come about.
The question now is whether or not elected officials and administrators are willing to do what may not be politically popular. But then again, doing the right thing is not always politically popular.

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