Guest Commentary

As the assessor continues to hike fantasy property values, Pima County residents find themselves paying more for less

We modern Americans don't believe the old stories, the old fairy tales, do we? But what if I told you we feed a hungry monster, force widows from homes, enact fantasy taxes and keep ugly secrets, right here in Pima County? Monsters are nasty, feed ravenously and grow larger every year--they're bloated, unpredictable and beyond human understanding. We have one here in Pima County.

Our monster is called the property tax.

According to the Arizona Tax Research Association, Pima County has the highest property-tax burden in Arizona--double that of Maricopa County. And Pima County's commercial property taxes are the fifth-highest in the United States. Fifth! Are we all wealthy? Do we live in mansions? Are our small businesses booming? No. And each year, more businesses flee our monster. In 2000, seven of the top 10 employers in Pima County were government entities. This year, nine of the top 10 employers are government entities. And we elect someone to feed and groom our monster. We call him "assessor." We vote for him every four years, and we all rejoice in his draconian skills. Think about it: Pima County voters elect an assessor to feed the monster. Why?

Widows? Consider a widow on a fixed income. Let's say she and her husband bought their home in the '70s for $80,000. She only wants to live out her years among cherished memories. But her primary and secondary property tax bill comes to more than $160 a month, because the assessor has listed her $80,000 home as having a tax value of more than $160,000. (Of course, that's true only if the unfortunate widow is forced to sell her home.)

Ponder that ridiculous concept a moment: While income taxes are based on a number on a W-2 form, and sales taxes are based on a number on a price tag, property taxes are based on a vague opinion called "market value."

Market value assigns the widow's home a numerical worth, partially based on where she lives and the condition of her neighborhood, but mostly on local sales. The county assessor assigns the widow's home a tax value by finding a "comp"--usually a neighbor who made a nice profit selling his home to a newcomer to Tucson. So, our unlucky widow must pay higher and higher taxes every year based on her neighbors' profitable sales. Bottom line? In April, and again in October, our widow must pay nearly $1,000 in property taxes, just so her government will let her keep her beloved home.

And about those fantasy taxes? The Tucson Unified School District adopted a budget in 2002 levying $62.5 million for desegregation. They increased local property taxes by $10.5 million, mostly commercial property taxes. Joel Ireland, a member of the TUSD Board, said this was just a "fantasy tax," because the tax burden wouldn't all be paid by local homeowners due to a 1980 constitutional homeowners' tax cap. He meant that the tax would mostly be paid by small businesses. No wonder businesses are leaving! Joel Ireland figures small businesses don't count for much on Election Day, but we know that when businesses leave, we pay more taxes and lose more jobs.

Secrets? Let's expose the monster's dirty little secrets:

Secret No. 1: Not just widows, but all of Pima County's poor pay higher taxes without realizing it, because property tax increases are rolled into their monthly mortgage payments, concealing the outrageous fact that the average low-income Pima County homeowner pays more than $100 each month in property taxes alone.

Secret No. 2: Tax rates don't need to be increased if each taxpayer is forced to accept higher tax valuations each year. So, assessors now use computers to help their monster consume more. They call this new system "mass appraisal." And mass appraisal means a less personal, less predictable and much less accountable system.

Secret No. 3: Comps are always the highest and newest sale prices available. Taxes on your home are now largely based on your neighbors' sales to newcomers from California, or wherever prices are highest. Longtime residents don't get the money, profit or any additional services, but are forced to pay higher and higher taxes every year.

Remember, if the widow complains, the monster tells her to sell her home. And this isn't a fairy tale.

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