Combating Runaway Property Taxes

Recent headlines in Central Iowa are focused on an upcoming round of real estate assessments for properties in Polk County.  Long-time Polk County assessor Randy Ripperger estimates that residential assessments will increase by 22% next year.  We doubt Polk County residents will be the only Iowans experiencing a large jump in their assessed values; anyone who has tried to purchase a home over the past two years has seen that real estate prices in many corners of the state are only going up.  Countless Iowans will be angry about the increasing assessments because they believe they’re going to lead to higher property taxes.  And while larger property tax bills may be on the way, the assessors are not the ones to blame.

Once an assessor determines the market value of property in a given jurisdiction (and there is an appeal process as well as Department of Revenue equalization orders to further ensure accuracy), local governments take over.  This is the key part that so many Iowans don’t understand: property tax bills are determined solely by how much money local elected officials decide to spend.  If you want to see for yourself, grab the property tax bill that arrived in your mailbox last month and flip it over.  On the back side of the property tax statement, you’ll see the total amount of property taxes levied by the various taxing authorities like your school district, city, and county.  It even helpfully illustrates the change in those total taxes from the prior year.

As you examine that tax statement, keep in mind that the bill you just received utilizes 2021’s property values.  The assessments grabbing headlines at the moment won’t show up on property tax bills until 2024 which means there is a lot of time for Iowans to get involved in the property tax process.  A good first step is to visit ITR Local to view a historical trend of spending in your community.  Then you can contact your various local officials to let them know what you think about your property tax burden.  Finally, and most importantly, you should engage with your elected officials as they conduct budget meetings and budget hearings next winter and spring.

Property should be assessed fairly and accurately, and ITR Foundation is always on the lookout for ways to improve that process. But increased (accurate) valuations ought to be good news. Our houses are investments, and we should want them to gain value, as long as it doesn’t mean an automatic property tax increase. For Iowans who want to slow down the growth of property taxes, they need to look past the headlines and begin to work with the people responsible for those bills.