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Local governments must show their math to taxpayers at public hearings

From the Inside this week's Bellevue Leader: Sept. 21 series
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The first public hearings in Sarpy County required under a new Nebraska law aimed at pressuring local elected officials to reduce property tax growth are this week.

Postcards were mailed last week to property owners announcing the meeting at 6:05 p.m. Thursday at Papillion La Vista South High School at 10799 Highway 370 in Papillion.

Representatives of five political subdivisions in Sarpy County — City of Bellevue, City of La Vista and the Bellevue, Gretna and Papillion La Vista public school districts — will make presentations on their budgets for next year and take comments from the public.

Three other entities that tax Sarpy County residents — Metropolitan Community College and the Omaha and Millard schools — are among the nine participating in Douglas County’s hearing at 6:05 p.m. Wednesday in the legislative chamber of the City-County Building, 1819 Farnam St. in Omaha. The hearing will be televised on Cox Channel 18 and streamed live on Douglas County’s board meetings webpage: bit.ly/DougCoBoard.

The postcards and hearings are part of a state law officially titled the Property Tax Request Act, but dubbed by supporters as “Truth in Taxation.” The law was passed in 2021 but took effect this year.

Advocates such as Jim Vokal, CEO of the Platte Institute think tank, say the law will force elected officials to admit that they are increasing property taxes even when they keep their tax levies steady. That’s because of increased property valuations, set by county assessors.

“Elected officials like to say they kept taxes the same,” Vokal said. “When they collect more and spend it, they’re actually raising taxes.”

The law requires the major local taxing entities in Nebraska to send out the postcards and have joint public hearings when they propose increasing their property tax requirements on existing property by more than 2%.

The hearings must be held before the political subdivisions formally adopt their budgets and set their property tax rates. Higher tax collections resulting from real growth, that is, new construction or property improvements, do not count toward the 2% threshold.

Those are not the only entities that collect property taxes in the counties. Smaller political subdivisions are exempted by the state law. Others are keeping their property tax collections below the threshold established by the law.

The end result: The postcards and meetings won’t give taxpayers a complete picture of their property tax bills. They won’t know that until they get their tax statements, which typically arrive in late December.

The political subdivisions all set their budgets and decide their tax rates in open public meetings already. This added step from the state requires them to have a joint meeting after 6 p.m. The idea is to make it more convenient for the general public.

Vokal said he hopes that the hearings and notifications eventually will lead to local governments reducing their tax levies instead of spending the money generated by increasing valuations.

“Hopefully, this will lead to more transparency and more accountability,” he said.

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