DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This tough economy has not been good for home values in a lot of areas - at least the thinking goes, that means saving money on your property taxes. Not so. Millions of homeowners are actually seeing their property taxes either holding steady or climb, even as their house may be worth much less.
As Brian Bull of member station WCPN in Cleveland explains, there may not be much homeowners can do about it.
BRIAN BULL, BYLINE: I won't say how much my home value has fallen in recent years, but at least I'm not alone in asking, what's up with my property taxes? Turns out that the economic downturn, state laws, and appraisals have created some nasty surprises.
Cuyahoga County's Fiscal Officer, Wade Steen, has been taking lots of calls from unhappy homeowners lately. He says they most often live in a community where voters passed a recent levy. That's a property tax measure that boosts funding for things like schools and libraries.
WADE STEEN: Shaker Heights comes to mind, where the voters have voted for those school levies which is going to naturally raise the taxes that they pay.
BULL: With about $3,700 paid per $100,000 of home value, the Cleveland-area community of Shaker Heights has the highest property tax rates in Ohio. Voters here approved major school levies in 2006 and 2010. Maybe some residents grumble, but most enjoy what levies provide - like Myra White, who's lived in Shaker since 1964.
MYRA WHITE: We have garbage pickup in our backyard. If they miss my house and I call, they'll make a special run, on another day. On Halloween, there are fire trucks and police cars driving around, I guess that's just kind of for fun, but it's also like a patrolling thing. It's almost, oh gosh, I hate to say this, but it's a little bit of a concierge environment.
BULL: Levies are often the only recourse school districts and other agencies have for increased funding.
Kevin O'Brien of the Great Lakes Environmental Finance Center, says that's because the recession has forced states to slash budgets, sending less money to counties and municipalities.
KEVIN O'BRIEN: And this hurts communities. Not having the revenue that they anticipated from the prior years, and having to carry the same number of staff and the same body of services, so they have to find creative ways to cover the gap.
BULL: Another reason for your property taxes not see-sawing with your home value, could be state law. Back in the 1970s and 80s, many legislatures passed bills designed to keep property tax collections from automatically going up with inflation.
Again, Wade Steen.
STEEN: Voters fail to remember that through the 80s, when property values were going up astronomically, their tax bills were holding fairly steady, maybe increasing modestly. But yet we never heard anyone say, geez, my property value has doubled in five years, this is great, but my taxes aren't doubling.
BULL: But the flip side to these laws - found in nearly 40 states - is that when home values plummet, the assessment rate can increase, to keep revenues at that fixed rate. And that's what's happening today. You might also take your government to task if they don't do annual assessments.
Jacqueline Byers heads research for the National Association of Counties.
JACQUELINE BYER: I live in Virginia, and they re-assess property every year. But right across the river in Maryland, they're on a three-year assessment cycle. So what can really happen to them is that their property taxes will be high, even in a down economy, because they're using data for the value of their property that's two to three years old.
BULL: In other words, the assessment's based on years when home values were higher, and not reflecting current value. So what can you do? In most cases, you can challenge your assessment, if you feel it's not accurate and can back up that claim. Ohio's Cuyahoga County projects 26,000 property valuation complaints this year, almost twice the number from 2011.
For NPR News, I'm Brian Bull in Cleveland.
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