Having just returned from a statewide conference of county trustees and assessors in Indianapolis, County Assessor Wanda O'Neal said she thinks property taxes in Putnam County are in pretty good shape.
"As far as I know I don't think our situation is that bad. We haven't had a lot of appeals and the ones we have had have been handled pretty well," O'Neal told the BannerGraphic Friday.
A tax on property is the primary source of revenue for local governments in Indiana. It is based on the assessed value of property. The tax rate multiplied by the assessed value owned by a taxpayer is what the taxpayer owes to the government. The tax rate multiplied by the total assessed value of the government is the total tax levy.
All in all O'Neal said she feels most people are pretty satisfied with understanding their property tax and what it is all about. Reassessment sheets are sent out every year and people are told to come in early with any concerns or changes. Generally the office finds that if an assessment should be lower, something was removed from the property or had changed and the assessors office was not informed about it.
"We have had people complaining but while they may not like the bill they understand it," she adds. "Not everyone walks out happy. Our assessors might find something that has been torn down which hasn't been passed on to their office. Once they are informed, it comes off their taxes for the next year." Taxes are paid a year in arrears, always have been and probably always will be, O'Neal said.
She added that one reason taxes were not as bad in Putnam County as in other areas of the state is the fact that in-house assessors are used to look at property values. In fact, she noted that Putnam County was the first county in the state to hire in-house assessors.
"Many people outsource this service and property owners might have someone who lives in Michigan determining the value of their home. Our in-house folks are people who live in the same neighborhoods as you do. They pay taxes too and they don't want their taxes to go up either," comments O'Neal. "It also gives us better control to make sure the assessments are as accurate as possible," she added.
The only issue with using in-house people is that there are not enough of them. The office, which has had eight people working in it, currently only has six. Two positions were lost last year when the county took them away because of budget issues.
"We need to get them back," O'Neal said. "If you don't have enough people you can't get it all done or all done well. " The office is in the process of hiring a part-time person but O'Neal doesn't believe it is enough.
O'Neal told the BannerGraphic that what is important is for people to understand is that the schools get 82 to 85 percent of the county's property tax money.
"If we keep building schools and putting atriums, fish tanks and things that aren't essential into them, our taxes are going to keep going up,"she commented. "People don't always understand that."
Greencastle School Supt. Dr. Robert Green agrees that probably 82 to 85 percent of the property taxes do go to the school. He told the BannerGraphic that schools are expensive to run.
"I don't know of any atriums or fish tanks, at least in Greencastle. We're not doing any outlandish spending. We've cut administrative positions and teaching positions because we had to. We're running a pretty lean budget here."
"Schools continue to have increases in utilities and insurance," he added. "Gas prices have a large affect on costs and teachers still need to get raises. There are things by law we have to provide. Whether we get new money or not we still have to educate children," he stated.
Green believes that here in Putnam County, the superintendents are doing a good job of holding the line.
"At Greencastle we're not adding on, we're replacing outdated windows with better insulation which will improve air quality and hopefully lower utility bills. I don't believe any of the other county schools are doing anything that isn't necessary."
Green, who has been an educator for more than 30 years, states, "If people want to talk about consolidation (to save tax dollars) they need to know that the real cost savings comes with closing schools. That cuts utility, maintenance and some personnel costs. It's not going to be a giant savings but it can make a difference."
On New Year's Eve 2007 the state inventory tax died. This meant businesses like grocery and hardware stores were no longer taxed on their inventory. Green said he believes the shift in taxation away from inventory tax and farm property tax has had big influence on property taxes.
"Instead of phasing those things in, it was done all at once. That makes a big impact," he reported.
The BannerGraphic asked O'Neal if she sees the business inventory tax coming back in Putnam as it has in Marion county. She says no. She said she believes it will stay gone here.
"I just don't think it's something we will see here again," she stated.
Looking forward to a statewide assessor conference in August, O'Neal believes that some changes may come out of the meeting.
"They have had an executive session which may have changes but right now, I don't know what, if any, changes will occur," she said. "After the meeting we'll have a better idea."
The important thing to O'Neal is to make sure her office staff talks to every person who comes in.
"If they don't understand their taxes, we try to make them understand before they leave. We often can't change anything but once they understand their bill and the charges they at least know why they are being charged," says O'Neal.
Taxpayers have options if they are concerned about their property tax bill. Those options are:
* Contact the township assessor for a review of your bill.
* Get an independent appraisal of the property, which costs about $300.
* File an appeal.
* Call the state representative about the tax rate. This won't solve the current issue, but it may prompt lawmakers to look at the issue for the future.