31 March 2011


The lag time between property tax values and the true reality prices causes shortfalls in local governments. Cities, counties and school districts had been sheltered from the full impact of the slump because of the lag between when realty prices fluctuate and values are reset by local tax assessors. That’s changing as property rolls are adjusted to the current market and residents push to have their taxes cut.

Local officials are now facing the consequences. Property- tax revenue dropped in the last three months of 2010 at the fastest pace since home prices slipped from their peak more than four years ago. The decline may continue as values fall further, adding strains to cash- strapped localities that already fired workers, halted projects and cut spending because of the recession that began in 2007.

The decline for local governments contrasts with a recovery for U.S. states led by income and sales taxes. Collections in the fourth quarter climbed by $13 billion to $177.8 billion. This is the biggest jump since 2006.

In Maricopa County, Arizona, it was reported last month that values of all property dropped by 12 percent for the next tax year, the second straight double-digit decline. In Los Angeles, the second most-populous U.S. city, property taxes for the year ending June 30 are projected to fall 1.7 percent to $1.42 billion.

The strain may mean credit-rating cuts this year for local- government debt, which trades in the $2.93 trillion municipal bond market.

Local and state property-tax revenue slid $5.3 billion, or 2.9 percent, in the fourth quarter from a year earlier to $177.1 billion. All but $3.7 billion went to municipalities.

The slump in the most-active period for real estate revenue outpaced a
2.5 percent drop in the first quarter of 2010, the only other significant decline since prices peaked in 2006.

Residential real estate prices in 20 U.S. cities dropped by the most in more than a year in January. Property values fell 3.1 percent from January 2010, the biggest year-on-year decrease since December 2009. That’s prompting homeowners to seek reductions in the assessed value of their properties.

A symptom of a depressed real estate market has been a proliferation of successful tax appeals. This causes problems because a municipality has already assessed a property, collected taxes and made payments to local school boards and county governments.

Montclair, New Jersey, officials had to remake their budget when tax appeals reduced revenue to $51 million from an expected $53 million in the current budget year. They were forced to make large changes in library services, abolish community pre-kindergarten and lay off 12 municipal workers.

Only 15 percent of counties raised property taxes to make up for the lost revenue. Such a strategy can draw voters’ ire, as Carlos Alvarez, the former mayor of Miami-Dade County, Florida, found out. He was thrown out in a recall election on March 15 after he boosted property-tax rates last year to make up for a drop in home values.

Many local governments have been anticipating the revenue slide and cutting budgets to compensate. They’ve eliminated 377,000 jobs, or 2.7 percent of payrolls, since employment peaked in September 2008. The usual cost cutting has already happened and now deeper cuts are being made to compensate for the loss of revenue.

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