Values rising, taxes aren't

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— The typical property taxpayer in Routt County saw a significant increase in assessed valuation this year, but there is a good chance the tax bill was virtually unchanged from last year.

Routt County Assessor Amy Williams said the typical increase in assessed valuation in 2001 was about 25 percent (property is appraised for tax purposes in odd numbered years). Revenue limits placed on local governments combined with the county's expanding valuation have combined to keep tax bills in check, the assessor said.

"Your valuation could have gone up 25 percent without any tax increase," Williams said. "I think that really says something."

Taxes on commercial property and undeveloped land in Steamboat Springs came in at $1,406 per $100,000. Residential property owners fared better, paying $443.50 per $100,000 of valuation. Those figures vary around the county, where property taxpayers may live in different school districts for example.

Williams said it's also difficult to compare property taxes on $100,000 in 2001 to what someone would have paid in 2000. That's because most properties would have increased in valuation between 2000 and 2001.

Another way to get inside this year's property tax bills is to scrutinize an actual bill. Lot 3 Block 3 in the Whistler Meadows subdivision is a modest three-bedroom home of 1,600 square feet on a half-acre lot. The house is on Meadow Lane, about two blocks from Whistler Park and a connection to the Yampa River Core Trail. It's on the city bus line, about a mile from the Steamboat Ski Area.

The tax bill on the property this year is $1,365,up $90 from 2000 taxes. Significantly, the 2001 tax bill (due in 2002) is just $15 more than the 1998 bill, and less than the $1,390 collected in 1997.

The valuation of the house and the land its sit on increased at greater clip than the county-wide average this year, up 34 percent from $229,400 to $307,850. By comparison, the $90 increase in taxes represents a 7-percent jump.

Williams cites her home in Hayden as an example of how local governments have been able to keep residential property taxes in check as valuations have increased. She and her family purchased their home in 1989 for $50,000. It's valued for tax purposes at $150,000 today. However, since 1994, the property taxes have never been less than $980 and never eclipsed $1,100.

"Give or take $100 it stayed right there," Williams said.

Owners of commercial property and undeveloped land in Colorado have not enjoyed the same relative freedom from property tax increases that residential owners have enjoyed. That's because an amendment to the state constitution know as the Gallagher Amendment deliberately protects residential property taxpayers. The Gallagher Amendment provides that residential property owners shall bear know more than 35 percent of the property tax burden in any jurisdiction.

Residential property is growing at a faster rate in Colorado than is commercial property, Williams said. The result is that commercial property owners shoulder an increasingly disproportionate share of the tax burden.

"Gallagher has really buffered the residential property owner," Williams said. "That's what it was designed to do, and it's doing it very well. When it comes to commercial property no such luck. The real bummer is, they don't have the buffer that residential property has."

Williams said a trend that she is keeping an eye on is the leveling off of property values on the local real estate market.

"What's going to happen when we come down off this real estate market?" Williams asked. "We're experiencing a softening in the condominium market and somewhat in (single family) residential. The scary thing is it's going to be difficult to maintain revenue stream in decline."

In Colorado, the Taxpayers Bill of Rights caps the rate at which governments can increase tax revenues. But another provision of TABOR provides that in order for governments to raise mill levies, they must seek the permission of voters.During the economic boom of the past five years, Williams said, mill levies have been naturally trending downward. That's because the expanding property tax base means they can raise their capped revenues with fewer taxes.Theoretically, if property values declined in the future, Williams said, elected officials might have to go to the voters to raise mill levies just enough to generate the same amount of tax dollars they did the year before.

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