For the first time since metro Phoenix home values crashed, most of the region's homeowners can expect a noticeable drop in their property taxes.
Maricopa County property-tax bills are being mailed this week, and the average homeowner bill is expected to decline more than $60 from last year's bill.
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The bills reflect taxes from a variety of cities, school districts and other taxation districts, which take a percentage of a property's assessed value each year.
Most of those districts raised tax rates this year, but the overall amount of taxes those districts plan to collect is down almost 6 percent.
And although tax bills are tied to a property's assessed value, the decline is also partly because of budget cuts by public agencies across the state, which set their budgets, then adjust tax rates to match.
For example, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors decided two weeks ago to raise the county's property-tax rate from $1.05 in 2010 to $1.24 per $100 of net assessed valuation.
At the same time, the amount the county will collect from property taxes will fall by $21.7 million because of decreased assessed home values. To deal with the revenue shortfall, the county has spread budget cuts across its approximately 50 agencies and departments.
"I think that this is rather telling about the insignificance of tax rates," said Charles Hoskins, county treasurer. "Rates have increased because values have dropped more than spending, but the reduced spending is what ultimately determines what property owners pay."
This year's tax bills are based on 2009's valuations, when Valley home prices dropped a median of 15.2 percent. That was the third consecutive drop for home valuations in Maricopa County. Next year's property taxes will be based on 2010 valuations, which showed home values fell 11 percent.
Last year, county property-tax assessments were down 3.7 percent from 2009. But not every homeowner saw a decrease in his tax bills during 2010 because several municipalities and special districts had to raise their tax rates to offset budget shortfalls.
This year, Hoskins expects most homeowners to see a decrease.
Although tax bills are declining, the drop isn't nearly as much as the plunge in home prices, which have tumbled about 60 percent since 2006.
And Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association, cautioned that not all homeowners' tax bills will drop. It will depend on how much their respective school districts and cities raise tax rates. School districts are expected to raise taxes this year, he said. On average, property taxes from school districts make up 61 percent of a homeowner's tax bill.
A homeowner living in Glendale Elementary School District whose property was assessed at the median value of $140,000 for last year's taxes and $124,500 for this year's may pay $76 more this tax year.
But the owner of an equivalent home in the Isaac School District in Phoenix may pay $99 less.
Both cities kept their tax rates flat, and both school districts increased their rates, but because the increase was smaller in Isaac, the total tax bill decreases.
"A blanket statement about everybody's taxes in the county going down will be problematic on that level," McCarthy said. "The things that might be driving some softening of the tax bill at the county level are not going to occur at the school-district level and, to a lesser extent, at a city level."
Property values are assessed annually, and county tax bills based on those assessments arrive 18 months later.
The bills are based on a formula based on two factors: property valuations set by the assessor and tax rates set by nearly 1,500 municipalities and other tax jurisdictions.
Those jurisdictions - counties, cities, school districts, community-college districts and other special districts - determine the actual tax load for any given home.
A tax bill is a composite of the taxes assessed by those many different districts. A home that is inside a certain parks district, for example, may pay higher taxes than an identical home nearby that lies outside district lines.
To set rates, the taxing jurisdictions must first figure out how much money they need to fund their budgets.
Then, the district and municipalities work backward to set their tax rate. Under this system, a decline in value without an equal drop in a jurisdiction's budget will cause tax rates and taxes to go up.
All jurisdictions have a legal cap on how much they can raise tax rates, which is mandated when they are formed.
But districts can take a larger amount through local bond issues or voter-approved school-funding increases called budget overrides. This year, Hoskins said $1 out of every $5 assessed for property taxes will go toward voter-approved budget overrides and debt payments.
Homeowners' tax bills show which taxing jurisdictions are contributing to their total assessment.
The total assessed tax for all Maricopa County homeowners from all taxing districts is $3.9 billion this year. That compares with $4.2 billion last year and $4.3 billion in 2009.
Tax consultants believe Maricopa County has one of the most complicated property-taxing systems in the country. However, property-tax reform doesn't draw as much support in Arizona as other parts of the nation because the state has one of the lowest tax rates.
Arizona has the 39th-lowest property-tax rate in America, according to the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit.
McCarthy said although that may be the case for residential homes, Arizona ranks about 16th-highest state in commercial- and industrial-tax rates.
The residential-home market may have bottomed out, but the commercial market still has room to decline, and business taxpayers are still seeing tax increases, he said.
"We have low homeowner property taxes, and we have high business-property taxes because we don't generate property taxes from homeowners on an even basis like most states," McCarthy said