LEGISLATOR seeking legal opinion on property tax law

Saturday, July 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A Tulsa legislator has asked Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson's office to decide whether a 1996 law requires county assessors to increase property taxes by 5 percent a year.

The legal opinion is being requested because the 5 percent increase is occurring in the more populated counties, where market values of homes are increasing.

State Rep. Russ Roach is trying to determine if metropolitan counties are overtaxing their property owners because assessors are misinterpreting the law.

``This is the fastest-growing tax in the state,'' Roach, D-Tulsa, said.

Using last year's figures from the Oklahoma Tax Commission, Edmondson's opinion potentially affects 74 counties.

Atoka, Latimer and Cimarron counties had tax collection decreases from 1999 to 2000.

The market values of homes increase more rapidly in counties where population is increasing, so the more a county is growing, the more likely taxes will increase.

Roach said the law is intended to allow growth counties to raise property taxes up to 5 percent a year instead of a mandated 5 percent.

``What was intended to be a tax increase ceiling has instead become an annual tax increase floor,'' Roach said.

Property values in Tulsa County increased 38 percent from 1995 to 2000. In Oklahoma County, those values increased by about 30 percent during the same period. In Rogers County _ the fastest-growing county in the state _ property values nearly doubled.

Property tax collections in Oklahoma County increased by about $163 million from 1999 to 2000. During this time, about 2,000 homes were added to the tax rolls for the first time, while others were reassessed and their values increased.

``Many county assessors claim they have no choice but to increase property taxes every year by 5 percent,'' said Roach, one of a handful of lawmakers seeking the opinion.

Oklahoma County Assessor Mike Means says he is only following a good law. In Texas, the law allows a 10 percent annual increase in valuations.

In 1996, voters approved State Question 676 that stated, ``assessed real property shall not increase by more than 5 percent in any taxable year.''

Means attributes much of the increase in Oklahoma's property taxes to an economy that prompted more construction, with those properties being added to the tax rolls. But he said the law also means that county assessors must keep up with the market values of homes every year.

For example, a person buys a home for $100,000. A few years later, the county assessor checks the value of that home, looking at such things as the sale price of other homes in the neighborhood. The assessor might discover that other homes are selling for $130,000.

Means said the assessor is compelled to raise the value of that home by the maximum 5 percent annually until it reaches $130,000.

But Roach said that isn't fair to people like his neighbor, Floyd Casey, 79, who is on Social Security.

``We are on a fixed income, and if they keep raising my taxes by 5 percent a year, pretty soon I can't afford to stay in this house,'' Casey said.

``I just know people like myself can't get out and do any work to supplement our income, and then the way they raise the taxes each year, it's not going to be many more years and we're going to be sitting out on the street.''

State law freezes property assessments for the elderly, but Casey said his and his wife's income is slightly more than the income limit to qualify.

Roach said that no matter how the attorney general rules, the law needs to be changed. He said that at least for older people, he wants homeowners who make $40,000 or less a year to be included in a law that freezes the assessment on their homes.