EAGLE COUNTY — Remember when real estate always went up in value, and county residents were upset about the effect those rising values would have on their tax bills? It’s been a while, and it will be a few years yet until values, and tax bills, start increasing again.
Eagle County will this week mail “notices of valuation” to roughly 40,000 property owners, and, for the second time in as many two-year cycles, values will declines. Eagle County Assessor Mark Chapin said he expects the overall decline to be about 18 percent. That comes after the 2010 valuation, which saw values drop 23 percent overall.
At this point, it’s important to mention that county-assessed values don’t have much to do with current market realities. But those values are used to determine property-tax rates for the dozens of tax-collecting agencies and entities in the county.
Values for taxing purposes are set by state law. Here’s how it works:
Every two years, county assessors across the state set property values as of June 30 of even-numbered years. Notices of those values are then sent to property owners on May 1 of the following year. Taxes assessed this year will be collected next year.
That’s why property owners were still paying taxes based on pre-recession values until just a couple of years ago.
Numbers and more numbers
To create that “snapshot” of market activity, assessors across the state use data from 18 months before June 30 to create an idea of the price of property, using information from sales of comparable units.
Property owners can appeal those official notices, although they tend to protest more in rising markets. Chapin said there were roughly 3,500 appeals in the 2010 valuation cycle. That’s about half the number of appeals from the 2008 cycle, when county-determined values were still on the rise.
While the county’s overall valuation for tax purposes is still dropping, Chapin said that certain areas of the county were harder hit than others. As of June 30 of last year, values were still declining in Eagle, Gypsum and Basalt, Chapin said. Values are holding steady, or even climbing a bit, in Vail and Beaver Creek.
The local real estate market has actually seen values start to climb in the past year or so, and there are fewer homes on the market — particularly due to foreclosure or other bank action — than a couple of years ago. That means the 2014 cycle may reverse the trend of the last two valuation periods.
Towns depend less on property taxes than on sales taxes. In Avon, for instance, town finance director Scott Wright said property taxes make up about 13 percent of the town’s general fund revenue. Still, an 18 percent drop next year would be about $315,000, he said.
On the other hand, Wright said it’s really too soon to tell just what effect this year’s valuation might have on the town’s budget for next year. Town officials are just now starting the process of drafting next year’s budget.
Running on reserves
Agencies that depend more on property tax, though, can make longer-term plans.
Dan Smith, head of the Eagle County Ambulance District’s board of directors, said the latest decline in values was expected.
“Since I’ve been (on the board), our district has always recognized that property taxes will fluctuate,” Smith said. “We have the reserves to ride out these cycles.”
Smith added that a turnaround in the 2014 cycle will be welcome, in order to rebuild the district’s reserve funds.
In Eagle, Greater Eagle Fire Protection District Chief John Patterson said a turnaround can’t come soon enough.
Patterson said the Eagle-based department has seen its overall revenue collections drop by nearly half over the last two cycles. While there haven’t been any layoffs of full-time people, but Patterson said the department depends on a strong volunteer group.
And, Patterson said, department firefighters and equipment have been sent to numerous wildfires on federal land over the last few years. That’s become an important source of revenue, Patterson said, bringing roughly $210,000 into the department’s coffers in 2012.
But belt-tightening and moonlighting only go so far, and voters may ultimately be asked for a tax increase.
“We’re going to try really hard not to do that,” Patterson said. “I don’t want my own taxes to go up. We’re doing everything we can to avoid it.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever be back to 2008 (revenue levels),” Patterson added. “But if it goes down much more than we expect, we’ll be in trouble.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2939 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.