Uncommon Ground

Taxing Time

The more we grow, the more we seem to pay

By Mike Jopek

Oh boy, I thought, this was not going to play out well for people who live in their homes. The assessment was available and tax valuations were up bigtime. I heard from homeowner friends and neighbors throughout the state anticipating similarly historic taxing news.

I thought back to my time in the state Legislature when more than 10,000 Montanans protested their taxes. That was more than a decade ago, the last time a land rush upended homeowner property taxes.

Today’s valuation increases were significantly larger, projected at 43% statewide last November, before the Legislature met. Traditionally, Montana reassessed property every six years, today it’s every two. If you own a home, you’ve noticed. If you rent, you still pay.

The Flathead continues to lead the state in growth and property taxes. The more we grow, the more we seem to pay. Even a farmer can visualize how this plays out in the future. Not great for fixed income homeowners or renters.

Montana stopped mitigating the cyclical effects of property reappraisals once I left Helena, well over a decade ago. I guess the process involved too many numbers, criteria not well suited to modern policymakers who favor bombastic rhetoric. Come election season, the very same politicians promise they’ll fix it, really, they promise.

Statewide, tax valuations of homes and downtown businesses exploded, quickly doubled to well over $2 billion in assessment, and promises to add another $1 billion in the upcoming cycle.

Blame local government they’ll yell, but city or county can’t increase by more than half the rate of inflation per year, new construction and remodels aside.

That’s not what the tax bills say. It’s as plain as a frosty solstice morning.

The increases rural residents repeatedly face are real and significant. Aside from local governments, the state continues to shift industry taxes onto the base, or homeowners, and adds 101 mills to each property. Because the state stopped revenue neutralizing the effects of biannual reappraisals, these mills are worth a bunch more in today’s market.

Places like Whitefish and Columbia Falls rebate substantial amounts of money back to local taxpayers from resort taxes. Whitefish has returned $17 million back to property taxpayers since the program started.

Most of the Flathead has no such mechanism to allocate tourist dollars back to the locals who pay for the streets and tolerate the traffic. We fund the police and firefighters to accommodate millions of visitors.

Montana enjoys some $900 million worth of one-cycle tax relief thanks to the once-in-a-generation economic stimulus funds delivered by Congress from people like Sen. Jon Tester. The Legislature said that it will redistribute funds via state income taxes and the balance available by application to people who live in their homes, excluding renters.

Dave Fern, my local state representative, and a champion of the working person, who earlier assured that old-timers can keep recreational properties in the family, voted for all three of the Legislature’s tax reliefs. He sought renter relief but the supermajority said no.

Fern proved instrumental in Helena, created affordable housing solutions and kept his focus on kitchen table issues facing every working local.

The biggest losers in these taxing times are local renters who were ignored by supermajority legislators. As property taxes and valuations go up for landlords, so will rents paid by tenants.

Protest all I want, I thought, planning to file the notice with all previous years. There’s no arguing with the tax man. Voters keep sending the same valley politicians back to Helena to “fix it.”

Pay up buster, I told a skeptical self, and hope that the relief that Fern voted for and Tester previously delivered to Montana hits the mark and finds a home with working people across the valley. Locals could use a hand. It’s our turn.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.