County officials describe this year’s tax rates as ‘stable’

Stable is the word Bartholomew County Auditor Barb Hackman uses to describes property tax levels in the Columbus area this year.

Compared to billings issued a year ago, the overall average tax rate for 2015, which is payable this year, is up by four hundreths of a cent per $100 of assessed valuation, said county real estate and tax billing administrator Chris West.

Columbus residents are paying the highest tax rate in Bartholomew County at an average $2.54 per $100 of assessed valuation. 

But for a city resident with a $100,000 home and no Homestead credit, the average property tax bill will drop about $51 from what the owner paid last year for 2014 taxes.  

In Rockcreek Township, officials did not submit a form to a central portal maintained by the Indiana Business Research Center that provides financial data to the state, West said. 

So for the time being, the township as a taxing entity “has no budget, so they have a zero rate,” West said.

But there are plenty of other taxing entities serving the township, so Rockcreek residents are only saving about 4 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

The next lowest rate is in Sandcreek Township at $1.41.

Two other circumstances in different townships have an impact on taxes paid by property owners.

Property in annexed areas of Clay, Flatrock, Wayne and Harrison Townships is being taxed an average of about $1.04 more than nonannexed areas.

However, the annexations are nothing new. Those in selected Flatrock Township areas are paying almost a nickel less than last year, while only slight increases took place in the other three areas.  

In Jackson Township in southwest Bartholomew County, assessed valuations went up in the Lutheran Lake area. However, meetings were conducted by Bartholomew County Assessor Lew Wilson to explain the circumstances and financial impact to lakeside residents.

Changes are in the details

While there’s no single big thing to upset any group of taxpayers, county officials say there may be some smaller complaints from those trying to get their real estate taxes paid before the May 10 deadline.  

For example, West recalled a recent incident where one individual with a higher-than-expected tax bill seemed to get angrier after learning his property tax cap had changed.

“He said ‘Why did my cap go up?'” West said.  “I told him it’s because his property (value) went up by $22,000.”

The man was unaware there are three different levels of property tax caps established by the state. If a property goes up in value, those caps could change, West said.

In addition, the resident was not aware that property taxes raised by school referendums are not subject to state-imposed caps because they have been individually approved by a majority of voters.

Property owners are still paying for school expansions and improvements approved by referendum in November 2008.  

The referendum approvals included $89 million for projects in the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., and $18.87 million in upgrades approved by voters in the Flatrock-Hawcreek school district.  

But the debt service for the Hope-area schools has diminished to the degree where property owners within the Flatrock-Hawcreek school district saw their tax rate drop by 7 cents this year, West said.

Complex formulas

Both school corporations, as well as Bartholomew County government and the Solid Waste Management District, have the same across-the-board tax rates for all cities, towns and townships.

But rates established for other taxing entities like cities, towns, libraries and townships will vary due to a variety of factors, Hackman said.  

“It just depends on what the budget was calling for versus the assessed value we certified for the property owner,” West said.

Tax rates are also impacted by a change of status on deductions that are offered for homestead, geothermal, rehabilitation, historical, veterans and mortgages, West said.   

While taxpayers favor stable tax rates, it is not helping the county out of the budget crisis that began last summer.

“We just need some growth — and less appeals,” Hackman said.

A growth in appeals

In 2011, there were fewer than a dozen property tax appeals filed because “it just wasn’t worth their time,” said Wilson.

But during the 2012 reassessment year, more than 2,000 appeals were filed in Bartholomew County, Wilson said.

Since then, the county has averaged about 673 appeals annually, which has resulted in millions of dollars of lost revenue, Wilson said.

Those who believe a successful appeal is great news for them — and tough luck for the county — might consider looking a little further down the road.

When the state agrees to lower your taxes, they are also lowering the value of your property, West said. 

If others residing near you also lower their property values, the entire neighborhood could eventually end up paying much more in the long run to raise amounts needed annually by the taxing units, Hackman said.

Taking steps that lower property values is something most people deeply regret if they get involved in real estate transactions, West said.

But it’s large businesses that file property tax appeals, rather than homeowners, that most frustrate the county assessor.    

Corporations have the advantage over the county in negotiations because they often employ professional tax lawyers — and the county does not.   

When a company can force the county to pay $3,000 in legal fees to try to collect $1,000, the county often has no choice but to informally settle for less than a fair amount, Wilson said.   

“I give away more than I get back,” Wilson said.    

Due to regulatory changes, a number of property owners in Bartholomew County have been waiting years for a judgment on their appeals. Such cases could result in what West calls a “double-whammy” for the county.

In such cases, refunds for multiple years might have to be paid back with interest, and the county gets less revenue in subsequent years because refunds lower a property’s assessed value, West said.

“If you are inundated with a backlog of appeals that take several years to resolve, it could hit your county hard,” Hackman said. 

While all property tax bills sent out are correct, early rates and due taxes quoted during the last week of March and first week of April were later revised, Hackman said.

At that time, county officials had been told that since the school referendum taxes were established prior to 2009, they would be subject to tax caps.

But a determination was later made that all referendum taxes will be paid on top of the caps, regardless of when they were passed, Hackman said.   

Although that meant more taxes, the reversal of policy at the state level impacted few people, including those who had hit their cap and wanted to pay early, those who were using preliminary data from the county and professionals who provided lending and title services, West said.

Hackman has sent letters of explanation and apology to those who received the wrong information.

How to pay taxes

The spring installment of 2016 property tax bills is due May 10. A 5 percent penalty will apply for any payments as many as 30 days late.  After June 10, a 10 percent penalty will apply.

Five options for payment are available.

  • Mail – Send remittance to Bartholomew County Treasurer’s office, P.O. Box 1986, Columbus, IN 47202.  Must be postmarked by the due date.
  • Banks – Centra Credit Union, First Financial Bank, Jackson County Bank or MainSource Bank. Must have tax statement to make the payment.
  • 24-hour drop box – located on the Third Street side of the Bartholomew County Governmental Office Building, 440 Third St.  Envelopes will be provided, but taxpayers must include a copy of statement, parcel number or address.
  • In person – at the county treasurer’s office in the county governmental office building. The office will be closed on Tuesday for the primary.
  • Credit card – Instructions can be found on the back of the statement, or online at bartholomew.in.gov.  Credit card companies will assess a fee.

Information: 812-379-1530 or online at bartholomew.in.gov

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.