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Opinion

Finding Solutions on Property Tax Reappraisal

Guest Commentary: Mike Jopek

In Helena, Democrats and Republicans are getting along nicely to mitigate the effects of the 2009 property tax reappraisal in a cooperative manner. The Revenue and Transportation Committee is entrusted with finding solutions for local businesses and homeowners to the property tax reappraisal. As one of the legislators on this committee, I see folks rolling up their sleeves to do the people’s work with an open ear.

On our farmstead, barn cats and farm dogs sometimes spat. Likewise cynics say that it’s impossible for politicians to be trusted to work on behalf of people. But legislators, unlike farmyard pets, are coming together as people, not partisans, with a common interest in assuring that property taxes do not rise due to reappraisals. Our common bonds as Montanans are strong, a refreshing change and lesson from the bullying majority of the 2007 Montana House.

Our Constitution requires that Montana “appraise, assess and equalize the valuation of all property”. The next reappraisal should be implemented in 2009. By law, every six years the Revenue Department establishes and equalizes property values.

It’s understandable why homeowners and local businesses are saying that property taxes are unpredictable or too high. I agree. We are burdened by near $4 per gallon gasoline, overly high health insurance costs, skyrocketing interest debt and home heating prices that have run amok; all causing elderly and folks to choose between gas, medicine, food or heat. Given this scenario, the people’s government is an easy target. At least some of us listen and act accordingly, which is more than we can say about unregulated insurance costs or gas prices.

It’s refreshing to see that there will be neighborhood modeling in the 2009 reappraisal. This will help to assure that tax valuations are equitably applied, and not by comparing “mc-mansions” to regular homes. Traditional homes should be valued next to other traditional homes.

We are beginning to see tax valuations in high-growth areas slowing and even decreasing, while tax valuations in low growth areas have escalated more than expected. This is good, for tax purposes, because equalization is much easier when there are not wild differentials between the low- and high-growth areas of Montana. It allows for simpler and more equitable tax rate reductions and increased homestead and comstead exemptions from valuation.

We need more and better circuit breakers for anomalies in the system. Sometimes odd situations require targeted relief. There will be molding of concrete ideas in the coming days including expanded caps, and better income bracket relief.

But most exciting is the committee agreed to look at what other states have done in terms of reform – to model other states strategies upon Montana’s system using 2003 reappraisal numbers and real, new construction growth. This is good news for many of us looking to reform property taxes of Montana homeowners and local businesses. Other states have had great successes and there is no reason why we cannot use these successes.

We’ll see a lot more material in April, then again as the crop season advances. The Revenue and Transportation Committee meets all the way to the snow season of 2008, giving us the needed time to forge bonds and fully vet solutions to property taxes, and honor local businesses and homeowners with the deserved respect.

I’ve talked and listened to enough folks to know that if it looks like our optimism is too fancy, we have plenty of time to delay property tax reappraisal implementation in the 2009 session. Some may find there is no urgency or willingness to change the present tax structure and decide to pass the ball onto following session, though the climate is right today for reforming the property tax reappraisal system.

I’ll continue to work with our governor and any willing legislator or citizen to assure that all Montanans are fairly represented in the process. Some of our best solutions are coming from the folks back home. This work would not proceed without continued good input. Keep the ideas coming as listening is the precursor to solutions.

Only a handful of hardheads still doubt that the 2009 property tax solutions should target Montanans and not out-of-state corporations making record profits at the pump. Democrats and Republicans can agree to do right by Montanans. Our common bond should be our farmers, local businesses and homeowners; the elderly, retirees and families striving to do right by our children.

Civility and respect go along way in politics, and hope is still stronger and more vibrant than fear. It’s common values, which will reform our statewide property tax system and assure no increases due to reappraisals.

Mike Jopek is a Democratic legislator from the Whitefish area