The Hays City Commission, during a visit from regional Kansas legislators last week, expressed anger with a property tax lid approved by the state in 2015. The lid affects city and county governments and took effect in January 2017.
The law requires a public vote to impose property tax increases that exceed the change in the Consumer Price Index for the preceding five years.
“I really do not like the state — that cannot run its own finances — telling cities and school districts and counties what to do. ... It makes me very angry,” City commissioner Henry Schwaller IV said. “You’re basically telling communities, ‘You cannot grow, because if you do, we will throttle your revenue.’ It makes me very angry that the Legislature, again, which nearly bankrupted the state with reckless spending and reckless tax cuts, would tell municipalities that know how to run their own shop, we’re going to tell you how to do it better.”
The city of Hays voluntarily caps its own property tax mill levy at 25 and relies more heavily on sales tax revenue for general operations. But the cap still has been “detrimental” as the city relies on property tax for several expenses, including employee health insurance and benefits and equipment for first responders, he said.
Vice Mayor James Meier agreed, calling the tax lid a piece of “magic bean” legislation that attempts to create a permanent solution to a problem he doesn’t believe exists in most communities.
“They’re trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. And if they do think it exists, the solution is not a top-down solution,” he said. “Honestly, it’s just frustrating to see people who call themselves conservative and want to advocate for local government do this kind of stuff, because it’s the antithesis of what they say they represent.”
State Rep. Eber Phelps, D-Hays, who is a former city commissioner and serves on the local government House committee, said he expects efforts to continue seeking repeal or changes to the tax lid bill. He noted the Kansas Association of Counties has identified the issue as a top legislative priority for the upcoming session. Phelps also spoke in opposition of the tax lid.
“One thing that’s something I’ve taken note of over the years is whenever somebody in the Legislature starts talking about local control and advocating local control, usually the next thing out of their mouth is something that takes away local control,” he said. “The irony there is having been in city government … you know what your community needs. Sometimes at the state level, this one-size-fits-all really backfires. And I think in this particular case, it did.”
Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, said high property tax is one of the top concerns he hears from residents on a daily basis. While he said he understands the commission's concerns, he does not expect the tax lid to go away anytime soon, though changes could be introduced to “make it more favorable.”
He said he believes high property tax imposed by local governments is more of an issue in the eastern part of the state — which has more legislative votes.
“In rural western Kansas, we don’t have issues. Because the folks in rural Kansas in the western part of the state, they understand and they know who their commissioners are,” Billinger said. “If they don’t like what’s going on, they vote them out the next election. If you folks aren’t doing what the folks want you to do, they are going to call you or run somebody against you and vote you out.”