Friday, April 1, 2011

THE PROPERTY TAX GAP: When the rich pay nothing, school children suffer

At this month's League of Women Voters candidate forum, audience member Dick Parker asked school board candidates when they would raise property taxes. 
When low tax revenues put student achievement at risk answered Helen Wade -- the most accomplished speaker among the candidates -- and the most achievement focused.   Wade also emphasized that Columbia's students deserve no less and should settle for no less than the absolute best education this community can provide. 
Problem is, Columbia is settling for less than the best, and low tax revenues are putting student achievement at risk.  Just maybe not in the way you might think. 
Call it the property tax gap -- the difference between what Boone County's very rich -- billionaires and multi-millionaires with sizeable real estate holdings -- pay versus what the rest of us pay.   
Schools and other public services are losing out on tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of property tax valuation, most of it locked up in dubious land-use designations used to shield prime assets.  
It's a wide-reaching problem this publication has reported on too many times to count -- an insidious crisis that tolls like a petty blackmailer, taking from every average taxpayer; more from every school teacher; even more from every aging Columbia or Boone County school building that desperately needs basic improvements (like air conditioning and mold-free conditions); even more again from annual budgets, slashed tremendously in recent years to accomodate those wealthy enough to pay so little.    
The property tax gap is also a dirty little secret virtually anyone in leadership knows well, but about which no proposed remedy has yet succeeded.  At City Hall, when Council members requested action; and at Columbia Public Schools, when School Board members requested action, their inquiries were squelched. 
School Board president Jan Mees took the time to complete a lengthy survey about the issue.  After personally investigating undertaxed properties herself, Mees was left scratching her head as to why the owners paid so little in property taxes.  In the end, she could only defer to the State. 

"From this exercise, one is led to conclude that there are inconsistencies, discrepancies, or inequities in the valuations and taxes assessed on some properties.  But there are state laws and statutes regulating this valuation process," Mees wrote. "School Boards do not take part in determining property value." 

experienced candidates also got on eyeful, exploring the property tax gap for themselves. 
"As our schools suffer directly from undervalued tax assessments, I believe based on the information provided that we certainly could have a problem," said current Columbia City Councilman Jason Thornhill, in response to a 2009 candidate questionnaire.  "I still think it will be tricky to tax someone entirely upon the possibility of what they could do.  I also know that there are many, many undervalued parcels of land that are effectively costing our schools and public safety entities money due to their gross underpayment of tax."
"If there is a systematic bias in assessed values that undervalues certain types of property, it would be in the interest of the school district to investigate," said current School Board member Michelle Pruitt.
"The issues raised and the information presented in the articles are something the new Council and Board of Education will need to discuss in great detail," said current School Board member Christine King.   
"First, everyone will need to be schooled and educated on how land should be assessed. If the laws are being followed, then what is the problem -- is it the assessment or the law? If the laws on assessment are not being followed and applied fairly, then we need to address that issue appropriately. We must be diligent and also treat each situation on its merits." 

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