As we campaign across our local districts we are fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of citizens about their concerns regarding our community. One of the most frequently raised complaints that we hear about is property taxes. Another common theme is the desire to preserve the character and culture of this valley that we call home. There is an important connection between these two issues.
Property taxes, particularly in Whitefish, have risen so rapidly for some folks that they have had to leave their homes. Many of the people most affected are those on fixed incomes. They have spent their lives contributing to our community and becoming a part of its fabric only to be forced out.
This is a terrible predicament for those who find themselves in this position, but also a terrible cultural cost to our communities. We lose something precious with the migration of these long term residents. We lose their ongoing contributions, their historical knowledge and we lose relationships built over a lifetime. In rewriting our property tax laws, we should do so in a way that supports those who have put down roots and not create financial barriers for the folks who want to stay.
Recently, we met with a group of homeowners who have been negatively impacted by their appraisal and subsequent property tax. We learned that the appraisal process is ripe with inconsistencies resulting in property taxes that vary among similar properties. We’ve heard stories of homes compared to one another for tax purposes that simply aren’t comparable. We’ve also learned that the appeals process can be a demeaning affair, leaving the homeowner open to criticism and intimidation from panels of “experts” at the state level.
We believe that a narrow approach should be taken to address those individual property owners living in their homes as full time residents experiencing reappraisals resulting in hardships. An example of such an approach was the property tax cap bill SB184 from 2000, which lasted only to 2002 when it was rescinded. This cap established a relationship between improvements made on the property (your home) and the value of the property resulting in lower property appraisals. (In this law the property could not exceed 75 percent the value of the structures or improvements).
A similar approach would be helpful to eligible homeowners without causing statewide havoc. There are multiple remedies that will allow for the integrity of the system while addressing the regressive portions of the tax. We should consider the following: Expansion of EPTAP to former levels of eligibility (a tax assistance program that allowed participation for incomes up to $75,000), a circuit breaker system that provides rebates based on a relationship between property tax and income, a Minnesota statute that provides annual rebates based upon a spike in appraisals. Montana must be equipped with multiple tools to help those who are victimized by a high appraisal.
We will work to educate other legislators of the benefits of a fair property tax and appraisal system and seek solutions. We also anticipate strong pressure to reduce the income and business equipment tax. We understand that revenues are down as we enter the legislative session and corresponding needs in social services and education persist, thus reform will be challenging. However, such reforms are long overdue. The homeowners at the table have been fighting this for decades. Past Whitefish legislators from both parties have worked valiantly on their behalf. We plan to do the same.
Dave Fern, candidate
House District 5, Whitefish
Melissa Hartman, candidate
Senate District 3, Whitefish
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