Friday, August 12, 2005

Citizens express tax fears at hearing

Legislative committee proceeds on reform fast track

Express Staff Writer

Nyle Barnes, a seven-year resident of Blaine County, one of several dozen citizens who addressed the Idaho Legislature's Interim Property Tax Committee about property tax concerns and recommendations, said Idaho's non-disclosure policy of home-sales prices is an enemy to tax equity. Barnes said he was amazed at the anomalies in property value assessments in one particular Sun Valley neighborhood. "Purchase and sale prices are kept secret. What is the assessor to do, hold a finger in the air?" Photo by David N. Seelig

"I'm one of the fortunate people," said 83-year-old World War II veteran Ralph Girton, a Lower Broadford Road resident who lost much of his hearing during the six years he spent fighting the Japanese in the Pacific theater of war.

One of about 40 Wood River Valley residents who addressed the Idaho Legislature's Interim Property Tax Committee in a Community Campus classroom in Hailey Wednesday, Girton said for his property, currently assessed at over $1 million, taxes jumped $4,230 between 1997 and 2003. Family advice to save half of his earnings is Girton's key to making ends meet, despite the dramatic increase in his cost of living, he told the committee of a dozen legislators from around the state and at least 100 citizens who came to participate in the public forum.

"I'm not talking about myself. I've paid for my house," he said, explaining that he has spoken to many people on fixed incomes who are having to leave the county because they can't afford their taxes. "I don't think that's right."

Girton was also concerned that people from his generation who have spent years paying for the classroom where the public hearing was held are still being asked to pay for the new multi-million-dollar school next door.

"Let the new people pay for that one," he said. "We've already paid for this one."

The tax committee is currently making a dozen stops around the state to hear Idahoans' tax concerns and thoughts about reform. At the hearing in Hailey, legislators heard comment from a diverse pool of citizens.

Sun Valley Associates real estate agent Jed Gray, a 56-year county resident, said the house his mother drew and his father built was the third house in Sun Valley. Today, his mother pays more than $10,000 a year in property taxes for the same humble 2,200-square-foot residence.

"We're hurting our aged," Gray said.

Essential populations of people who make up the county's work force were also represented at the meeting.

"Like Mr. Gray said ... we built our house. We have a lot of sweat equity in this valley," said Sheri Thomas, a mother from a double-income family who takes on extra catering jobs to keep a handle on the family home, with no tax relief in sight. "My kids are suffering (with both) parents working."

Gray said he recently sold five houses to young two-income families.

"They barely qualified (for a mortgage). Soon, with taxes going up, they won't be able to," he said, recommending certain exemptions for primary homeowners. "We don't need to keep shuttling people down the valley and even out of the county."

Part of the tax reform equation is not only how to protect citizens trying to make ends meet, but how to simultaneously create equitable ways to still come up with the necessary funding for local government, municipal services and education funding.

Creating equity in how taxes are distributed is another concern.

Blaine County School District Treasurer Mike Chatterton said that in Blaine County someone with a $500,000 home pays the same amount in school taxes as someone with a $250,000 home in Twin Falls.

Several common recommendations voiced at the meeting include ending Idaho's tradition of non-disclosure of purchase prices and instituting a property transfer tax that would not impact those who choose to stay in their homes—but it would take a chunk out of the housing speculation market.

Additionally, increasing homeowners' exemptions in counties with sky-rocketing property values, capping assessments of owner-occupied homes, expanding application of local option taxes and raising the level of the "circuit breaker" program were recommended by speakers. Those speakers included Rebekah Helzel, of the nonprofit group Advocates for Real Community Housing, and Sarah Michael, chairwoman of the Blaine County Board of Commissioners.

"I was really pleased with the turnout," said Idaho House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum. Jaquet said she was also pleased that the legislative committee heard a great deal of support for real estate sales price disclosure, something that is done in 47 other U.S. states.

The county's property taxpayer advocate, Marisa Nelson, shared her experiences gathering testimony from county taxpayers, one-third of whom expressed fears of being unable able to stay in the community. Nelson also shared some of her research of tax-balancing measures being taken in surrounding Western states.

The committee left Hailey to meet with citizens in Pocatello and Rexburg, where a large turnout was expected in light of the record number of construction starts. The committee will also be in McCall Aug. 24 and Aug. 25, where concerns loom that taxpayers at the new Tamarack Resort enjoy substantial loopholes.

Whatever the committee's final list of tax-reform recommendations, to present them to the Legislature requires a two-thirds approval vote. The committee plans to begin meeting to formulating their recommendations Sept. 13.

"We're moving pretty fast on this," Jaquet said.

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