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Real Estate

Property Taxes Reach the Breaking Point

It really costs to own a home these days. Not only have home values fallen, leaving nearly one-quarter of residential mortgages under water, but also, local governments around the country have increased property taxes to make up for declining revenue from other sources.

Homeowners now give a slightly bigger portion of their earnings to property taxes—which mainly go to public schools, with the rest going to government operations and other public services—than before the recession. The Tax Foundation, a Washington (D.C.) research organization that advocates for lower taxes, estimates that 3.5 percent of household income went to property taxes in 2009, compared with 2.9 percent in 2005. The median property taxes paid on homes increased to $1,917 in 2009 from $1,614 in 2005.

How much is too much? In Miami-Dade County, taxpayers have had enough. Angered by a property tax hike amid plunging real estate values, as well as a pay raise to county employees and a new $600 million stadium for the Florida Marlins, 88 percent of 204,500 people voted to oust Mayor Carlos Alvarez in a recall election on Mar. 15.

Miami-Dade residents pay the most property tax in Florida: a median $2,600 per year, according to the Tax Foundation, citing the average median real estate taxes paid annually from 2005 to 2009 in U.S. Census Bureau reports. Last year, Mayor Alvarez pushed for a 14 percent property tax rate increase to help fill a $444 million budget hole.

"It's not proper to increase taxes by $178 million [in] this community—while over 50 percent or close to 50 percent of [homeowners] here owe more money than their homes are worth," Norman Braman, the billionaire car dealer who led the recall effort, told reporters.

Stable Source of Revenue

Property taxes grew significantly in the recession, according to the Tax Foundation. Nationwide, state and local revenue from property taxes totaled nearly $474.2 billion in the 12 months ended September 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, up 38.8 percent from the same period in fiscal 2005. Corporate net income tax fell 10.3 percent in the same 2010 period, while total state and local tax revenue rose 15.7 percent.

"Property taxes tend to be the more stable revenue source," says Mark Robyn, an economist at the Tax Foundation. Local governments "can set their rate every year. Property tax policy is very flexible for local governments."

New Jersey residents pay the most residential property tax in the U.S.: an average $7,576 last year, up 78.7 percent from 1999, according to data from the state's Department of Community Affairs. Homeowners in Millburn Township paid an average $19,441, the most among major towns in the state.

Among the more than 3,100 counties in the U.S., Hunterdon County, N.J., had the highest median real estate taxes per year— $8,216—from 2005 to 2009, according to a Tax Foundation report. Other counties with high taxes in the five-year period: Nassau County, N.Y., where homeowners paid $8,206, and Westchester County, N.Y., where median property taxes on homes were $8,160. (One-year data show Hunterdon ranked fourth in 2009, after Westchester County, Nassau County, and New Jersey's Bergen County.)

Upset voters in various parts of country have resisted the recent tax hikes—though not always with the same result as in Miami. In Chattanooga, Mayor Ron Littlefield's push for a 19 percent property tax increase sparked a recall effort by the Chattanooga Tea Party and other groups, which failed in 2010. Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle has raised property taxes a total of 15 percent, also leading to a recall election this past January that failed to remove him from office. In Jersey City, the municipal tax rate has increased 84 percent since 2005, but efforts to recall Mayor Jerramiah Healy fell through in February.

Last year, New Jersey lawmakers capped property tax increases by local governments at 2 percent.

Schools Seek More Funding

About half of property tax revenue goes to public elementary and secondary schools, according to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass. Public elementary and secondary schools get about 43.5 percent of revenue from local and intermediate sources. State sources provide 48.3 percent, and the remaining 8.2 percent comes from federal sources, according to National Center for Education Statistics 2007 to 2008 estimates.

"From a political standpoint, pressure to provide adequate funding of schools and pressure to provide property tax relief are often intertwined," states a report by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. "Taxpayers who want to see reductions in their property tax liabilities sometimes press state government for particular school finance restructuring measures."

While residents battle tax hikes, some school boards say avoiding increases will lead to job losses. In Georgia, Chickamauga city councilmen voted for a 17 percent property tax increase in October to generate about $200,000 for schools. In South Portland, Me., the South Portland School Dept. proposed a budget that increases taxes to avoid losing 21 full time positions (including two teaching jobs) next year. In Austin, Tex., the teachers union is discussing a tax increase because the Austin Independent School District may cut $94 million from its budget.

As state-level funding fell around the country, many school districts relied on money from the $100 billion federal stimulus in 2009 as well as increased property tax revenue. Yet with most of the stimulus used up now and many taxpayers reluctant to accept more tax increases, schools may have to adjust to a lower level of spending.

"This might be a longer-term situation where there will be more control on school spending," says Eric Hanushek, Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Unfortunately for schools in need of funds, until the real estate market recovers some value and the economy improves, homeowners may continue to fight back against city hall.

Click here to see which county in each state pays the most property tax.

Wong is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow her on Twitter @venessawwong.

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