Property tax assessment fee raises issues

Published 11:00 am Thursday, August 11, 2011

Daily Herald editorial

It may be that charging a $50 fee for pre-sale real estate tax estimates — as Mower County commissioners decided to do earlier this week — is necessary to keep the county’s budget in balance. There are, however, a couple things about that decision that merit further thought.

Government fees always raise the question of where the dividing line is between a basic government service and an extra service for which a fee should be charged. In the case of estimating property taxes for sellers and their Realtors, many would say that those properties have generated annual tax revenue to the county for years, and that providing information about those taxes is a rather basic thing for the county to do. As it happens, Mower County commissioners disagree. The potential problem is that the commissioners’ logic leads to an endless cascade of potential fee decisions: Should residents pay a fee to ask other questions of county officials? Pay a fee to call the sheriff’s office for help?

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There’s almost no end to the services for which the county might charge. The only question is where this board of commissioners will draw the line.

Also interesting was commissioners’ decision to go beyond the recommendation of their own expert, Assessor Rich Peterson, who believed a $30 fee would be sufficient provided the sellers gave his staff three days to produce the estimate. A typical estimate, Commissioner Jerry Reinartz said at this week’s board meeting, takes an hour to produce — longer if it’s complex. Thus it is hard to imagine how the county’s actual cost to produce most estimates is any more than $30, and even that would seem to be stretching things given what most county employees make per hour. So does $50 represent a fair charge or is it a new profit center for the government?

Counties, like every other branch of the government, face a budget crunch. As they look for ways to ease that crunch, fees will be an increasingly tempting solution. Given their power, commissioners will face a constant question of when to create fees and how big to make them — and how to balance those fees against the needs of the people they were elected to serve. How Mower County’s commissioners answer that question will bear close inspection.