St. Clair County lowers property tax levy for fifth straight year

News-DemocratMay 2, 2014 

For the fifth straight year, St. Clair County is seeking less in property taxes from residents than the prior year.

The St. Clair County Board has approved a tax levy seeking to collect about $31.3 million in property taxes this summer. The levy is about $776,000 less than the county collected in property taxes last year.

The levy and the value of taxable property in a taxing district will determine the property tax rates homeowners find on the property tax bills this summer.

The county has annually decreased the amount of property taxes collected and slightly lowered its property tax rate during the past five years. This year's requested levy is nearly 8 percent less, about $2.6 million, than the amount of property taxes collected in 2010.

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern praised the County Board and noted the board could have chosen to collect an additional $28.7 million from taxpayers. The county has annually abated taxes for 20 years and collects about half of the legal limit, he added.

"We're serious about fiscal responsibility. We want to keep property taxes in check and that's what we've been accomplishing," Kern said. "The goal is keeping the property tax rate the same. Anytime you can lower taxes and still maintain services, we believe that's a good thing."

Kern said the county cut its budget by $8.8 million last year and is continually re-evaluating ways to save money, such as a recently approved pay freeze for elected officials. The county has also cut its general fund, which funds numerous departments, for three consecutive years.

The county is able to rely upon alternative sources of revenue instead of property taxes to fund operations, such as fees for services. In November, the County Board approved increasing the cost of building permits, restaurant inspections, copies of records and others. The fee increases are projected to add about $420,000 to the county budget.

Kern said the fee increases are based upon the cost to provide the service and are part of the way the county has held the property tax rate steady.

"By having user fees for people actually using the services, it then puts some of the financial burdens on those using services as opposed to the homeowner paying through property taxes," Kern said.

Fees accounted for about 30 percent of the county's total revenue, according to the county's latest audit in 2012, and property taxes accounted for about 32 percent.

The projected property tax rate for the county is expected to be slightly lower than last year's rate of 0.9123. The owner of a $100,000 home paid about $304 to the county in property taxes in 2013. A homeowner's property tax bill is a combination of all taxing districts in which that home is located, with school districts collecting a majority of the tax revenue.

County Administrator Dan Maher said the levy was reduced in spite of the fact that the value of property has declined in the county. The higher the value of local property, the more property taxes collected.

"This is going on five straight years when there's been less assessment than the year before, down a total of about 7 percent available to extend taxes," Maher said. "That makes it extremely difficult to keep abating the taxes but nonetheless Chairman Kern has got this abated again. It'll be a little harder next year if we don't see some growth in the assessed valuation..."

The value of property used to set property rates in the county was $3.5 billion in 2013 compared to nearly $3.7 billion in 2010.

Interactive graphic: How do property taxes work?

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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