Diane Battiato’s right: Assessors aren’t the cause of Nebraska’s property tax woes

Diane Battiato’s right: Assessors aren’t the cause of Nebraska’s property tax woes

As summer begins and finalized property valuations land in many Nebraska mailboxes, county assessors can take an undue share of the blame for what looks to be an unavoidable—and sometimes major—increase in property tax bills.

But in a recent Omaha World-Herald letter to the editor, Douglas County Assessor and Register of Deeds Diane Battiato appropriately set the record straight that assessors are not taxing entities that decide the ultimate cost of property owners’ tax bills.

The assessor’s job is to determine the market value of a property in accordance with the law, and no one can deny real estate prices in Nebraska have rapidly increased in recent years.

While there are plenty of aggrieved taxpayers who don’t like the assessment process or feel they have been done wrong by it, Battiato rightly points out in her letter that local political subdivisions have the choice to reduce tax rates as assessments rise.

An individual with a significantly rising assessment might still see a tax increase anyway, but a lower levy would at least soften the financial impact.

And even if an individual taxpayer succeeds in protesting their assessment, that doesn’t change how heavily property is already taxed across the board in Nebraska. At some point, everyone feels the pain of the current system.

A state law passed in 2019 was intended to add more transparency to the tax levying process, by requiring local boards to reduce their levies to a revenue-neutral rate, unless they held a separate boarding hearing and vote on the proposed property tax increase.

Problem is, most taxpayers and even some political subdivisions didn’t seem to know about this requirement.

LB644, the new Truth in Taxation law passed in Lincoln this session, will make sure taxpayers are no longer left in the dark about who really decides to raise property taxes. Starting in 2022, taxpayers must be directly notified by mail when cities, counties, school districts, or community colleges seek a property tax increase above 2%, plus real growth.

What this means, as an example, is that an overall 10% valuation increase cannot be automatically adopted as a 10% tax increase without taxpayers being mailed a postcard notifying them about a public hearing on the proposed tax increase.

Truth in Taxation will give Nebraskans an opportunity to express their concerns about property taxes in a more productive way, by directing them to the officials who are going to decide their tax rates.

In Utah, where this law has been on the books for decades, Truth in Taxation has kept taxpayers engaged with their local political subdivisions and helped the state to maintain the 14th lowest property taxes.

For their part, Nebraskans already get fired up when assessment notices arrive, which are usually delivered as postcards, too. But polling suggests most voters are confused about what to do at that point, potentially because the current notices don’t equip them with the important facts Battiato discusses in her letter.

With the unhealthy real estate market and the current economic recovery forcing housing prices even higher, property valuation increases are certainly coming for many more Nebraskans in 2022. But next year, the reality of rising assessments will be paired with better information concerned taxpayers can really use.

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