Blood from a turnip
Now that the West Virginia Legislature is in session, maybe our delegates and state senators will find a way to ease the property tax burden. But don't hold your breath.
Thing is, much of the state hasn't experienced the assessment and property tax hikes that Morgan County and the Eastern Panhandle have seen. If they had, you can bet southern West Virginia legislators would be wailing and whining like they did when a toll hike was proposed for the turnpike near Beckley a few years ago.
Most state officials want higher assessments and property taxes so they can shift more of the costs of education and other programs to counties, especially as state revenue dries up. It remains to be seen whether the Eastern Panhandle delegation has the will and the clout to change things.
Cap property taxes?
The fastest property tax relief for everyone would be a cap on how much a person's tax bill for the same property can go up in one year.
Let's say we limit tax hikes to 10% a year. This may sound high, but most Morgan County property owners have had larger hikes in recent years. We've seen increased assessments and the refusal of the Morgan County School Board to cut tax rates accordingly.
Capping tax hikes carries problems that would have to be worked out. Presumably, the additional tax could be charged the next year, but what if that's a recession year? There has to be a well-thought-out policy.
Higher Homestead Exemption?
One way of easing the burden for the elderly and disabled is to increase the Homestead Exemption, which exempts part of the value of a home from taxes. For years, there's been talk of raising this from $20,000, a small portion of today's home prices, to $40,000, which still isn't that great.
While this may be necessary, it doesn't help everyone. Exempting one group of taxpayers will merely put more burden on struggling working families if school boards and county commissions don't contain spending.
Besides, doubling the Homestead Exemption would require a public vote in the next election, so the impact would be down the road.
Another idea that we've been toying with is allowing people to pay property tax bills in smaller installments. This wouldn't reduce the bill, but many folks might find it easier to pay, say, $100 a month or $300 a quarter rather than have to come up with $600 for a half year or $1,200 for a year. Currently, the State Code requires that bills be paid in no more than two installments.
When we discussed this with a State Tax Department official, his reply was that people know the property tax bill is coming and should plan ahead. To us, his response just showed how out of touch the state is with people's property tax load and financial problems these days.
Unfortunately, many government and school officials haven't come to grips with what is happening to the people who pay their salaries. They're still trying to get blood from a turnip, and it's never worked before.