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Wyandotte County homeowners shocked by high appraisal notices say it might be time to move

Debra and Jeff Brownlee have lived in a subdivision in Kansas City, Kansas for 20 years. They don't want to move, but steep property taxes and aging infrastructure is making think harder about it.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Debra and Jeff Brownlee have lived in a subdivision in Kansas City, Kansas, for nearly 20 years. They don't want to move, but steep property taxes and aging infrastructure is making them think harder about it.

Many homeowners in Wyandotte County saw sharp increases in their county home appraisals this year, which is causing some to consider relocating.

Jeff Brownlee is retired, but it doesn’t feel that way. He serves on his homeowner’s association board as vice president and treasurer, a volunteer position Brownlee said feels like a full time job. Especially recently.

Brownlee and his wife, Debra Brownlee, live in Kansas City, Kansas, in the Presidential Highfields subdivision near Kansas City, Kansas, Community College. This year, many homeowners in Wyandotte County saw a sharp increase in their appraisal notices, signaling an increase in their 2022 property taxes. Brownlee said he got a least a dozen calls from neighbors concerned about it, asking for help appealing.

Brownlee also saw an increase in his home’s value. He said he’s used to paying relatively high property taxes, but this year his house was appraised at 25% more than last year, which could raise his taxes even higher.

“As soon as I looked at it I’m like, ‘OK, I know it’s good for your property to increase in value, that’s a good thing.’ But it’s just the amount,” he said.

Jeff and Debra Brownlee love their home and the community around them. But this year's increase has tempted them to think about moving.

Debra Brownlee said Wyandotte County’s aging infrastructure adds to the list of reasons to move.

“The thing is is that we are paying more taxes and receiving less services. The services are not being accommodated. We're not getting what we need as citizens,” she said.

The Brownlees sit on a bench in front of their home, overlooking a well manicured lawn for their grandchildren to play in.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
The Brownlees sit on a bench in front of their home, overlooking a well manicured lawn for their grandchildren to play in.

Brennan Crawford is executive director for Community Housing of Wyandotte County, a nonprofit that focuses on revitalization efforts and providing affordable housing in Kansas City, Kansas. Crawford said the jump in home appraisals is a big problem for residents. County appraisers calculate the value of a home based on a two-part formula, Crawford explained. The first part deals heavily with the housing market: If the market for housing is strong, house values will rise.

Then there’s the county’s mill levy. The mill levy is calculated by the amount of tax revenue needed to pay for public services. The taxable dollars of a person’s home are multiplied by the mill levy, which is roughly 11% in Wyandotte.

“The thing that it's important to note is that Wyandotte County has historically had a much higher mill levy rate than other municipalities, and that is because Wyandotte County has historically declined in population,” he said. “Population centers have moved west and south, and so the city has aging infrastructure, lots of needs, and a relatively low tax base to fund those needs.”

Crawford said the discussion around property taxes is a complicated one, because Wyandotte County needs a lot of infrastructure improvements, which will cost taxpayers. He said taxing people in an equitable way that won’t price them out of their neighborhoods is a fine line to walk.

“From our perspective as a nonprofit, social benefit housing developer, we want to keep housing investment coming into, particularly into historically disinvested neighborhoods," said Crawford. "But absent mechanisms to ensure that rising property values don't displace existing low to moderate income residents, you know, that's a double edged sword.”

How home values are determined

County Appraiser Matthew Willard said many homeowners do not understand how their home’s value is determined. The county appraiser’s office does not set a house’s value, he emphasized. Kansas law requires the appraiser's office to set classification and appraised values each year based on market activity. The mill levy, set by governing bodies, is multiplied by the assessed value to calculate a tax bill.

“What we do here, it's probably not particularly well understood by the general public,” said Willard. “But it's not magic, you know. There's a process and procedure behind everything we do.”

Earlier this month, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County held an open house to help people understand their appraisal notices and assist them with the appeal process. Willard said although the date to appeal property taxes has passed, he still wants residents to feel like they can bring him complaints.

“The main thing that I would like people to know, is that if they disagree with their value, we really would love to talk to them and at least sit down and have the conversation,” said Willard. “If there’s something that needs to be changed, we’ll do it every time.”

Clintel Betts was one of several older residents who attended the open house. Betts said last year his home was appraised at $170,000. This year, it jumped to $203,000. He appealed, but he is still waiting to hear if the appeal was accepted. Betts, 65, is retired, and his wife, Dorothy Betts, will retire soon. They live in the same neighborhood as the Brownlees.

“When we bought the house we had a plan. I had a goal, ‘I'm gonna retire, you know, we can afford this.’ But if they keep raising these taxes up, the older I get, we can't afford to keep paying these high taxes,” Clintel Betts said. “And I'm looking at myself, but I'm looking at all the other elders also that are going through this. They are getting ripped off.”

Clintel Betts said he has lived in Wyandotte County his entire life, but that might change. He said when Dorothy retires, they will likely move out of Kansas City, Kansas, in hopes of finding a home with lower taxes and better services.

The Brownlees stand in front of their home of almost 20 years.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
The Brownlees stand in front of their home of almost 20 years.

Relief is on the way. But is it enough?

Crawford said the people struggling the most with rising property values are people on fixed incomes. On April 14, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly signed House Bill 2239 into law to address this and a wide range of other tax measures.

The new law, effective July 1, extends qualifications for the Homestead Refund. Qualifications are as follows: claimants must be 65 or older or a disabled veteran, living in a home appraised at no more than $350,000. Household income must be $50,000 or less.

The bill, also dubbed the “Golden Years Property Tax Freeze Act,” refunds claimants when their property taxes exceed their “base year,” which the bill establishes as the year the claimant becomes eligible for a refund or 2021, whichever year is later.

The Betts and Brownlees, however, do not think this is enough to keep people from being priced out of Wyandotte County. The Betts said their income is too high to qualify for a refund, but they are raising their 8-year-old grandson so they have a lot of expenses. Dorothy Betts said she thinks the entire appraisal system needs to change because it is based on the market in Wyandotte decades ago.

“They just need to go back and revisit how this 1977 system has been set up, you know, and maybe revise it on what's going on in the county,” said Dorothy Betts.

Debra Brownlee said she’s worried not only for senior homeowners in Kansas City, Kansas, but also for young families. She said there are several young families in her neighborhood struggling to keep up with homeownership costs, rising taxes, and everyday expenses.

“I do know that not just the seniors, 65 and over that would benefit from this,” said Debra Brownlee. “I do believe there are young families with young children, paying daycare and trying to juggle work and home. They would also probably benefit from some type of relief as well.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the role of the county appraiser's office.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga reports on health disparities in access and health outcomes in both rural and urban areas.
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