Local government property tax data shows opportunity for savings

Property taxes assessed for the operation of local government totaled $2.7 billion in 2018 and significant differences in per-resident amounts across the counties indicate large savings opportunities – if the political will exists to take advantage.

As we wrote last month, the $2.7 billion for the operation of local government consumes the largest portion of property tax in Kansas.  This column examines some specific examples of variances among counties with similar populations.

Elk County and Rawlins County each have 2,508 residents according to the U.S. Census but cities, townships, the county and other local government entities in Rawlins County collectively assessed $5.4 million in property tax, while local government in Elk County charged $3.8 million.  If the potential savings of $1.6 doesn’t sound like a lot of money, consider this: it’s an average savings of more than $600 per resident.  Some of that potential savings would go to businesses but even if a third of the savings went to individuals it would still mean a lot.

Nemaha County’s population of 10,155 is 400 more than Linn County, but property taxes for local government are $5 million less than charged by local government in Linn County.  With almost the same population, residents and businesses in Linn County are paying $5 million more in property tax.

Finney and Crawford counties are larger, with populations of 36,611 and 39,019, respectively, and so is the potential savings.  Finney County charges $10.4 million in local government property tax than does Crawford County even though it has the smaller population.

And that brings us to a comparison of the state’s two largest counties.  Johnson County is the most populous; with almost 600,000 residents, it’s 16% larger than Sedgwick County but local government entities in Johnson County collectively charged 65% more in property tax.  Johnson County charges citizens and employers $229 million more, which is a 42% premium on a per resident basis.

The complete list of all 105 counties is available at KansasOpenGov.org.

The data comes from the 2018 Statistical Report of Property Assessment and Taxation published by the Kansas Dept. of Revenue, Property Valuation Division.  Local government includes all taxing jurisdictions – cities, townships, county, fire districts, libraries, parks, etc.; property taxes assessed for education and state operations are excluded.

Property tax per-resident is not an absolute measurement of the cost of local government, as each local government entity has a unique mix of property tax, sales tax, fees, and other charges, but the enormous disparity of per-resident taxation indicates there’s ample opportunity to reduce the cost of government.

Services certainly vary across counties and that will account for some of the property tax difference, but the next installment of our property tax analysis will explore what is likely the major cause.  As Mercatus scholar Maurice McTeague noted during a recent visit, Kansas is massively over-governed.