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No, Johnson County Didn't Secretly Raise Your Property Taxes

Did conservative incumbents really put a stop to secret property tax increases, as postcards that started going out last week to Johnson County residents claim?

Depends on your definition of “secret.”

“There’s nothing secret about a public vote undertaken by public officials after public meetings are held,” says County Manager Hannes Zacharias. “It’s campaign material.”

True, Johnson County Commissioners voted to increase the mill levy last summer to pay for infrastructure, parks and libraries. But to Zacharias’ point, nothing about that vote was secret. (In fact, KCUR covered it at the time.)

That hasn’t stopped incumbents from boasting they voted to end “secret property taxes.”

“Brett Hildabrand fought the bureaucrats and special interests and put a lid on property taxes,” according to one mailer the Kansas Club for Growth sent out in support of a Johnson County House member.

The “secret property tax increases” language appeared on a Facebook ad for Sen. Jeff Melcher, also paid for by the Kansas Club for Growth. Melcher’s own campaign sent out a cow-themed mailer accusing his primary opponent, Overland Park Councilman John Skubal, of “milking” voters for all they’re worth.

“Jeff listened to his constituents when they were frustrated with out-of-control property taxes,” it reads. “He passed legislation that restored your right to vote on local property tax hikes.”

How the property tax lid actually works

But legislation Kansas lawmakers passed in the waning hours of the 2015 session is a bit more complicated than that. When it goes into effect in fiscal year 2018, the property tax lid will prevent cities and counties from collecting property tax revenue in excess of inflation.

“The tax lid says we can’t harvest the increase in valuation that goes above the CPI,” Zacharias says.

Keep in mind, it’s not the mill levy – the rate at which homes are taxed – that’s changing. It’s how much the home is assessed for. That means if a home’s appraised value goes up 7 percent but the Consumer Price Index only goes up 1 percent, the county can’t collect on the difference. The homeowner doesn’t get taxed on the increased value of their home, nor does the county get any additional revenue for creating an environment where home values are going up.

“As the state of Kansas has reduced resources, particularly at the county level, those modest increases in tax valuations have been needed to backfill state cuts,” Zacharias says.

For example, as home values have bounced back in the years since the recession, an increase in property tax revenue has helped Johnson County pay for corrections and mental health services, areas where less money is coming from the state. But that all ends next summer.

The property tax lid provided political capital

Zacharias is doubly frustrated by the property tax lid because of recent history. He says Johnson County Commissioners resisted increasing the mill levy during the recession when home values plummeted and less money was coming in. Other jurisdictions didn’t hold back, meaning many people still got hit with bigger tax bills at a time they could least afford it.

Campaign mailers almost by definition lack nuance. But Zacharias doesn’t want Johnson County residents to forget why the property tax lid was passed.

“It bought additional votes to raise the sales tax and save the state’s bacon,” he says.

Conservative lawmakers who might not have voted for a package including a sales tax increase in 2015 were willing to do so because they could go home to constituents and say they’d held the line on property taxes.

But when tax collections for Johnson County plummet as a result, Zacharias says quality of life will suffer.

Melcher’s opponent, Skubal, is also worried. At a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored forum last week, Skubal said the property tax lid came up at a recent Overland Park City Council meeting.

“We don’t even have any idea how the law is going to be enforced,” Skubal says.

Zacharias says he doesn’t know of a single city or county manager who isn’t worried about what will happen when the tax lids go into effect. Because while cities and counties can still collect property taxes in excess of the CPI, they’ll have to put it to voters first.

Those elections are expensive. In Johnson County, putting such a question on the ballot can cost in excess of $1.2 million.

Neither Hildabrand nor Melcher returned KCUR’s calls for comment on this story.

Did you get a political postcard in your mailbox? Submit it to KCUR’s Kansas postcarding Tumblr.

Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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