County treasurer says housing market can fluctuate, but taxes fairly certain
"The economy is tough. The (real estate) market is tough. Why aren't my taxes going down?"
St. Croix County Treasurer Cheryl Slind said that's the question she has been hearing ever since property tax bills went out earlier this month.
While the market value of many houses probably has dropped, it takes time for the assessment and equalized value processes to catch up, said Slind. Besides, she said, the drop is likely temporary.
Also, said the treasurer, property tax bills -- many of which have actually fallen a little this year -- can't go down significantly unless municipalities and schools cut services and thus their tax levies.
Most Wisconsin property owners pay their first-half taxes to their town, city or village treasurer, but in St. Croix the county treasurer collects taxes for 12 of the 35 municipalities.
"Lowering your value is a process done by the assessor," said Slind. That process starts early in the year and concludes with the board of review, held usually in the spring.
"Once the board of review is adjourned, the values are set for the tax season," said the treasurer. Those values are the ones that show up on tax bills.
Still, said Slind, property tax bills wouldn't go down even if local assessors dropped assessments.
"If assessors went and lowered everybody's values based on the economy, but levies -- the costs of services -- stayed the same, there'd be less value to distribute the expense, therefore your tax rate would go up," said Slind. The end result would be that individual property tax bills wouldn't change much.
In fact, this year for many people taxes have dropped, even if it's just a little, said Slind. Her office is sending out refund checks to taxpayers whose mortgage companies required them to escrow tax money based on last year's taxes.
Slind said that in four days her office mailed between $10,000 and $15,000 worth of refund checks. The average refund was about $100.
Part of the reason for the slightly lower taxes could be an increase in values for other properties in the taxation district.
But another factor, one that shows up on the tax bill, is "the First Dollar Credit," similar to the Lottery and Gaming Credit.
Last year Gov. Jim Doyle included $75 million in the state budget, specifying that the money will be distributed among parcels with an improved value of $3,900 or more, said Slind.
The amount given to a parcel varies from school district to school district and is usually around $31 to $37.
With the state looking at a substantial deficit in its budget, this credit is probably a one-time thing, said Slind. "The governor is already saying, don't expect this next year."
She asked homeowners to review their tax bills to make sure they are getting the Lottery and Gaming Credit on the bill for their primary residence. If that doesn't show up, county residents can go to the St. Croix County Web site (www.co.saint-croix.wi.us), print off the appropriate form and mail it in.
Slind said homeowners don't have to sign up for the credit each year, but sometimes when new parcels are created, the credit is missed.
Overall, said Slind, her office is seeing many small increases and few large increases.
A good part of that is due, she said, to state-imposed tax levy limits.
Slind said she thinks all taxing districts are doing a good job of maintaining services while looking for ways to save tax dollars.
For example, she said, the county's 2009 budget is the tightest in a long time.
Slind agrees that whether taxes go down or not, assessed values on tax bills will go down.
"I expect that's coming," she said. "But it's definitely not happening as fast as people think it should happen."
She is optimistic those drops when they happen will be temporary.
"Sooner or later -- it's going to take some time -- but things are going to bounce back," Slind said.
"What's the answer?" she asked, and then answered her own question: "Patience, time."