Stop stealthy tax increases

East Valley Tribune
Thursday, February 7, 2002

News that property values are rising throughout the East Valley — in some areas dramatically so — should bring smiles to many homeowners' faces. It's one of the few investments that have been going up instead of down in recent years.

But the news also will bring smiles to many local government officials — and not for reasons that will please owners of homes and businesses. Rising property values make it easier to slip property-tax increases past taxpayers.

It happens all the time, and homeowners often are unaware until their get their annual property-tax bill.

At a time when there are safeguards against quiet increases of most other kinds of taxes — it takes a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, for example, to raise state taxes — government should not automatically get a windfall from rising property values.

Maricopa County officials last year had the audacity to claim they were cutting property taxes while average tax bills actually increased. While county supervisors were patting themselves on the back for reducing the overall tax rate by 3 cents, rising property values more than offset the rate reduction.

In fact, according to the Arizona Tax Research Association, a watchdog group, Maricopa County officials would have had to cut the rate by 4.7 cents just to claim it wasn't increasing taxes.

What makes county officials' erroneous tax-cut claim even more deceptive is the fact that the primary levy for operating revenues was increased by 2 cents. That increase was partially camouflaged by a reduction in the county's secondary levy for bonded debt as some of that debt was paid off.

Instead of allowing property owners to reap a modest benefit from paying off some long-standing debts, the Board of Supervisors used it as a cover to fatten the county's operating budget.

It was nothing less than a deceptive shell game that had property owners at first thinking their county representatives were looking out for their interests, and then wondering why their tax bills went up.

The shell game is bad enough for homeowners, but is 250 percent worse for businesses — because commercial property in Arizona is valued for taxing purposes at 2.5 times that of residential property. That has pushed Arizona's business-tax burden well above average nationally, which certainly won't help speed the recovery of local business and industry from the recession.

The Legislature has made some strides in recent years to make local taxing entities more accountable to the public regarding property taxes, but more needs to be done.

Although local officials have to make public disclosures regarding tax policies, the complexity of Arizona's property-tax system still provides government officials too much cover.

Bond issues that raise secondary property taxes already require voter approval. In like fashion, any increases in primary property taxes beyond inflation should require approval of voters or, at the very least, a two-thirds vote of the local governing body.

That would go a long way toward ensuring homeowners' growing real-estate nest eggs aren't looted by greedy government officials.