MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer HELENA
Lawmakers began looking at ways to mitigate big increases in property tax bills in the wake of an analysis that shows big property value increases in most parts of Montana. The Legislature, which convenes in January, will be dealing with value increases that surpass 50 percent statewide over the last six years for both residential and commercial property. An interim committee charged with reviewing the issue set up a special bipartisan panel to come up with some recommendations by early January. One lawmaker believes the Legislature should delay any reappraisal until 2011, while others said more effort should be made to make the state's property tax system fairer. Rep. Bob Lake, R-Hamilton said he believes it would be best to keep the current property tax system in place, preventing last minute surprise for either taxpayers or the government that relies on the revenue. Gov. Brian Schweitzer's administration and leading lawmakers say they are committed to making sure that, on average, taxes don't rise. Property in places with the biggest increases in valuations could see tax increases, however, in many scenarios. State Revenue Director Dan Bucks said homeowners will feel it in the pocketbook if nothing is done. "A priority needs to be placed on homeowners during this cycle," he told the Revenue and Transportation Committee. Bucks offered a few potential solutions. The 2009 legislature could do what lawmakers did in 2003 and phase in the new property values over several years, fold in lower tax rates and exempt a portion of a property's value from taxation. For instance, Bucks said the first $50,000 of a home's value could be exempted from taxation a method that provides greater benefit to those with lower-valued homes. By county, value increases range from a high of 104 percent in Lake County to a low of 11 percent in Liberty County. But variations exist within each county and reappraisal will make adjustments neighborhood by neighborhood, Bucks said. On average, counties defined as recreation and resort destinations, like Flathead County, rose at a clip greater than 70 percent, Bucks said. Counties involved in oil and mineral development went up in the 60-percent range on average. Those counties deemed urban centers rose at about 50 percent. Values in agriculture counties went up on average about 40 percent, Bucks said. Lawmakers worry the reappraisal doesn't fully take into account drops in prices because of the recession. Bucks says Montana prices have remained stable over the past year. The agency has spent several years reappraising property in the state. Rep. Mike Jopek, D-White Fish, said the data needs to be put to good use in making fair adjustments to property valuations. He is on the bipartisan panel that will meet through early January hoping to make a solid recommendation to the full Legislature. "If we punt right now before we even do it, I think we are going to find ourselves in the exact same position two years from now," Jopek said. Bucks said a failure to reappraise properties as is required could result in a lawsuit. "I'm not sure that you can so easily put the genie back in the bottle or tell the genie to wait on the side," Bucks said. "I don't think we have the option of not using it."