Engen convenes Property Tax Working Group to study taxation, find solutions

Missoula Mayor John Engen has convened a Property Tax Working Group represented by a broad panel of elected officials and citizens to discuss taxation, what drives it and ways to address it. (Missoula Current file photo)

Citing concerns heard on the campaign trail, Missoula Mayor John Engen has convened a Property Tax Working Group represented by a broad panel of elected officials and citizens to discuss taxation, what drives it and ways to address it.

The group, which is set to hold its inaugural meeting this week, has several stated goals ranging from potential strategies for relief to a thorough examination of how the Montana Department of Revenue conducts appraisals and assessments, which have left some property owners scratching their heads.

“Among the things I heard loud and clear from citizens as I campaigned for my fourth term as Missoula’s mayor is that property taxes are too high, unpredictable, and in some ways don’t make sense based on land and building values,” Engen said in a letter to the group.

“I take those concerns seriously and would like to better understand the issue and work toward solutions that provide property tax fairness while still providing the money the city needs to serve the community in the way citizens expect and demand.”

Property taxes emerged as one of last year’s campaign themes and, four months removed from the election, the issue hasn’t subsided, city CAO Dale Bickell said Tuesday.

“It seems more than ever that we’ve had more people talking about it,” Bickell said. “It’s a combination of all the bond issues passed, plus the reappraisals that have just occurred, that have it on the top of people’s minds.”

In his letter to the newly formed working group, Engen asked its members to help identify the problem and find solutions. While some Missoula property owners saw a decrease in appraisals this year, others saw increases of 100 percent or more.

Coupled with voter-approved bonds, including a new Missoula Public Library, Fort Missoula Regional Park and Missoula County Public Schools, some contend that property taxes are getting out of hand.

“We’ve heard some things that we can’t explain that seem patently unfair to a taxpayer,” Bickell said. “We wanted a way to have both policy makers and citizens in the same room to talk about these issues and identify areas where we have problems.”

The working group includes a number of city and county officials, including county commissioners and city council members. Several business owners are included, along with state lawmakers and local citizens.

“Particularly some citizens who raised particular issues related to their taxes and their appraisals,” Bickell said. “We’ve talked to citizens with a 118-percent increase in value and that sort of thing that’s really difficult to swallow.”

Bickell said the working group will try to better understand how the Department of Revenue approaches appraisals. It also will seek possible solutions. While state and local governments rely heavily on property taxes to provide essential services, other options could be available.

During last year’s Legislature, city and county governments successfully lobbied for an increase in the gas tax, netting some local governments additional revenue to pay for increasingly costly services.

“There’s a recognition in the Legislature that there’s a lot of needs out there our current model isn’t addressing,” Bickell said. “Maybe we can learn from other states. Everything is essentially on the table.”

Engen has listed three immediate goals for the working group, such as gathering information on specific properties and their actual assessments. Ideas for potential relief are also included, ranging from phased assessments to “brainstorming around equitable sources of new revenue.”

“If you have any initial thoughts on information we should cover or issues we should grapple with, let me know,” Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier told county staff on Tuesday. “I think one of the questions was, are there any specific properties that are the poster child of what’s not working well right now, via reassessments that have gone awry or whatnot.”