Local government officials throughout Idaho are heroically "holding the line on property taxes" and courageously "lowering tax levies" and bravely "thrusting their cold, steel swords into the evil heart of Big Government."
Well, I made the last one up. The rhetoric of our locally elected officials this time of year is certainly imaginative if not quite accurate.
I have read countless accounts of local officials passing budgets that keep property taxes down. But most people don't understand that the way state law is written, one can "lower the property tax levy" through inaction. As long as market values are going up, levies trend downward. Even the biggest, most lavish spenders can lower the property tax levy. Your lower levy is doing little to give you relief. Your higher property taxes are the result of higher property values.
The city of Coeur d'Alene said last week that it is approving a budget that will have a "zero percent property tax increase." The proposed budget calls for $17.5 million in property taxes. Last year's property taxes? About $16.7 million. We call that an increase.
Nampa, my hometown, claims to be passing a budget that keeps the new budget just 3.4 percent over the current budget. But on closer examination, Nampa's using a trick that helps the city's frugality narrative. The budget is actually an increase of 7 percent over the budget adopted last fall. City leaders passed an amended budget in mid-year, off of which the 3.4 percent figure is based. This trick, used in town after town, is how local officials are able to claim every summer that they're keeping budgets flat while increasing spending year after year.
I'm not saying that Nampa, like a lot of other towns, isn't actually trying to keep spending down. I think the city officials in Nampa are actually viewing its spending blueprint better than it has in years. I'm just saying that reports of heroic or historic efforts to flatline spending don't come close to telling the full story.
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