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Property tax still puzzles leaders
September 16, 2016 Jerry Purvis   

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Scotts Bluff County’s taxable property values took a slight increase of about 2½ percent for 2016, which translates into an overall hike of about $65 million. That puts the county’s total property valuation at $2.78 billion, up from $2.71 billion last year.

Most of the increase is due to valuation adjustments in residential properties, which according to state statute must be at 100 percent of actual value. However, the state allows for a minimum of 92 percent.

Last June, the county assessor’s office sent out notification to owners whose properties were affected by the change. At the time, County Assessor Amy Ramos said Gering, which had been valued at 90.45 percent, received an increase. Homes around Monument Shadows Golf Course were also severely undervalued.

Overall, most residential properties received a five to 10 percent increase, bringing the county’s valuation to 93 percent to remain within the law.

“We did percentage increases to stay in compliance with state law for 2016,” Ramos said. A percentage increase is kind of a Band-Aid approach for one year. We rolled one neighborhood in Gering, two in Scottsbluff and at the Lake Minatare Boat Club. That means we took last year’s appraisal data and applied it to the most current data.”

Under state law, counties are required to review all properties within a six-year cycle. Scotts Bluff County is currently completing reviews of commercial real estate, which will be ready for 2017. Smaller towns like Lyman and Morrill will also be reviewed this year.

Agricultural land, which is based on market value, didn’t receive much of an increase at all this year. “We run on a three-year sales study, so we’re always at least a year behind when we set values for the three previous years,” Ramos said. “We’ve seen increases of 15 to 25 percent in all classes of ag land, but this year the sales just aren’t coming in. The few sales that are coming in are closer to what we have them assessed at.”

She added that if this trend continues, there might not be a change on ag land next year, or even a decrease in assessed value.

Of course, whether increased valuation translates into higher property tax bills at the end of the year is dependent on whether local tax levying entities ask for larger budgets. Those entities include the schools, municipalities, Scotts Bluff County, Western Nebraska Community College, Educational Service Unit 13, cemetery districts, residential and sanitary improvement districts, Western Nebraska Regional Airport and the Natural Resources District.

The WNCC Board of Governors recently asked for a budget hike for the district. While their mill levy would remain the same at just over 10 cents, the increase in valuation would raise the college district’s property tax request by about $783,000.

At the College Board’s meeting, Bayard farmer Allan Kreman voiced a frequent concern that agriculture is already paying a disproportionate amount of the expense for schools and local government.

Ramos said that’s not the case for the entire state, but it is for western Nebraska where agriculture is the main industry.

“Even if the Legislature gives a tax break to the farmers, it’s actually a tax shift,” she said. “That money will have to be made up in other areas, putting more of a burden on commercial and residential properties.”

Although she had no answers, Ramos said the state needs to come up with a solution for funding schools that doesn’t rely solely on property taxes, which take about 70 cents of the property tax dollar. If a solution is found, property tax bills could go down by 50 percent or more.

Neighboring states have legalized gambling and recreational marijuana use to help fill their state tax coffers. However, the resultant social, law enforcement, and other problems they generate might not be a good tradeoff.

“Nebraska property taxes aren’t that high when we’re compared with all the other states,” Ramos said. “We’re about in the middle. The problem is we’re surrounded by states that have lower property taxes, so we seem higher.”
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