Assessment fix should focus on equity

As the start of the Missouri Legislature approaches, there is another flurry of pre-filed bills to protect taxpayers, mostly elderly homeowners, from higher tax bills resulting from reassessment every two years.

Some of the proposed bills would exempt some elderly homeowners from assessment increases. Others would cap assessment increases for all homeowners. Still others would let voters in each county vote on an assessment freeze.

All of these bills target the effects of statewide reassessment every two years without addressing the real problem: across the board assessment increases that very often have very little to do with the actual market value of homes. The assessments are based, in many cases, on cursory drive-by appraisals.

If legislators really wanted to address the reassessment problem, they would find out if property is being equitably assessed, whether market values for tax purposes are based on sales trends and whether just those properties that are assessed too high or too low are being adjusted.

Years ago, Missouri's property assessments were a shambles. In many counties, a home's assessed value was determined when it was purchased. In case after case, many property owners were paying taxes based on assessments that were decades old and bore no relation to current market values.

Assessments, of course, are one component of how much a property-tax bill will be each year. The other component is the tax rate. If a home's assessment goes up, the tax bill will be higher unless the tax rate is lowered. By the same token, tax bills also go up when tax rates are increased, even if assessments stay the same. In some years, both assessments and tax rates go up during the same year, producing a double whammy on tax bills.

To address the years-old inequities in property assessments, the state mandated statewide reassessment. Every county went through a laborious process of mapping every parcel of property and establishing a market value for each parcel. But even this complicated and costly process didn't correct all the disparate assessments. Obviously, taxpayers who received lower-than-expected assessments didn't complain.

Even after years of reassessment effort, there are still inequities in property-tax assessments. Those should be the primary concern of assessors statewide. Also of concern are what appear to be blanket assessment increases, resulting in increased assessments for virtually every property owner in a county.

The concerns of elderly taxpayers could be eased in large part if the assessments on their homes only increased when the actual market value went up. Homes that don't increase in market value shouldn't be subject to higher assessments just because another two years have gone by.

If the statewide reassessment program concentrated on equitable assessments and realistic market values based on on-site inspections, there would be less pressure for blanket reassessments to produce more revenue for taxing entities.