Hikes in pockets of county, most common for lakefront property

While most people want their house and land to increase in value over time, the last thing they want is to be taxed more.

Inevitably, the two go hand-in-hand.

Nevertheless, the office of Bartholomew County Assessor Lew Wilson received several phone calls regarding recently mailed property tax adjustment forms, for taxes payable next year.

“People call me up all the time and say ‘Wasn’t the county getting enough money? Are you picking on my house or my area?’ — and then, hang up,” Wilson said.

These irate calls illustrate some of the negative reaction to assessments in Bartholomew County neighborhoods that have increased significantly in value, he said.

Historically, property values in Bartholomew County rise an average of about 2 percent a year. But in three neighborhoods, the median hike was more than 10 percent, Wilson said.

Significant increases were most common on lakefront properties such as Schaefer Lake near Hope, Harrison Lake in western Bartholomew County and Lutheran Lake near Waymansville.

“As a whole, Schaefer Lake was undervalued,” said Wilson regarding that neighborhood’s median 18 percent increase. “We had to do much up there to change how the land was valued, as we had to do at all the lakes.”

For Harrison Lake residents, the median 24 percent increase was especially shocking after the same neighborhood experienced an average 34 percent hike two years ago, Wilson said.

However, that’s just the average. While some Harrison Lake properties actually decreased in value, others rose more than 200 percent, the assessor said.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s justified or not,” Wilson said. “If you raise someone’s property values 200 percent, they get excited.”

In an effort to reduce the shock, the assessor sponsored public meetings for some lakefront property owners to explain the situation. Those meetings only drew about a third of the impacted residents, Wilson said.

In Columbus, the neighborhood that experienced the largest increase was Talley Square. The median assessment hike in the neighborhood near 25th Street and Talley Road was 16 percent.

“These condos have really come into their own (in terms of sales) in the last three or four years, so some of them have increased quite a bit,” Wilson said.

Increases are the result of assessed values catching up with property values established by real estate agents. That type of comparison cannot be done for every property on an yearly basis, so when it finally does happen, hikes can be significant, Wilson said.

In many cases, the recently mailed adjustments reflect a three- or four-year increase, the assessor said.

“I wish there were limits imposed on the annual adjustments, but there aren’t,” Wilson said.

Another prominent reason for large increases in property assessments is the community’s low unemployment, which has created an increasingly strong housing market.

“(Low unemployment) keeps showing up — maybe more this year than in previous years,” Wilson said.

One reason for the strong negative reaction is that Bartholomew County residents had become accustomed to relatively stable assessments during the past 16 years, Wilson said.

Unlike many areas of the country, local properties did not experience rapidly growing home prices in the early 2000s, so subsequently, those values didn’t dramatically decrease during the U.S. housing bubble from 2006-2012.

“We’re all better off when the market is stable,” Wilson said.

If recent history is any indication, many Bartholomew County property owners will challenge the increases by filing an appeal prior to the July 5 deadline.

Since 2012, the county has averaged 673 appeals annually, which has resulted in millions of dollars of lost revenue, Wilson said.

But county officials remind residents that when they lower their property tax bill, they also lower their property values. That is something most people deeply regret if they get involved in real estate transactions.

And if several appeals are granted in the same neighborhood, property owners could find themselves paying more in the long run to raise amounts needed annually by taxing units, officials said.

Confusion on term

A single word on property assessment forms continues to take up a lot of time for county employees.

The forms, which list the assessed value of homes that is then used to figure out a homeowner’s property tax bill, have been showing up in mailboxes since the end of the Memorial Day weekend.

County Assessor Lew Wilson said the word “improvements” that is listed on the form is being interpreted by homeowners incorrectly, causing workers in his office to spend hours reviewing appeals and complaints caused by the misunderstanding.

The word on the forms is a real estate term that refers to any permanent structures on the property; this includes all houses, garages and sheds on the property that may have been there for several years, Wilson said.

Some homeowners mistakenly believe the term refers to the most common definition, something added to the property as an upgrade or renovation, since the last assessment, he said.

While calls regarding the misunderstanding are down a bit from last year, they still constitute about 75 percent of telephone conversations between his staff and the public, Wilson said.

Largest increases

Three Bartholomew County neighborhoods experienced more than a 10 percent increase in property tax adjustments for 2016, payable in 2017.

Talley Square (southeast of the intersection of 25th Street and Talley Road)

  • Median increase: 16%
  • Parcels: 34
  • Parcels sold over past three years: 47%

Harrison Lake (south of State Road 46 in western Bartholomew County)

  • Median increase: 24%
  • Parcels: 154
  • Parcels sold over past three years: 8%

Schaefer Lake (southeast of Hope)

  • Median increase: 18%
  • Parcels: 105
  • Parcels sold over past three years: 12%

Source: Bartholomew County Assessor Lew Wilson

How, when to file an appeal

Indiana law provides two ways for taxpayers to contest the assessed value of their property.

  • Subjective appeal: Based on the taxpayer’s judgement as to the correct market value of the property, these appeals should first be brought to the attention of the Bartholomew County Assessor’s office.
  • Objective appeal: Sought when a taxpayer believes a property tax card contains incorrect descriptionsm these appeals are initially handled by the Bartholomew County Auditor’s office.

If an appeal is denied locally, it will be forwarded to the county Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals for review. If that board also denies the appeal, instructions will be provided on appealing the decision to the Indiana Board of Tax Review.

The deadline to file an appeal is July 5.

Forms and additional information: secure.in.gov/dlgf

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