Homeowners in the Sylvania School District are speaking out against a district practice of contesting property values in an effort to collect more tax dollars, a move that comes in the wake of a recent tax increase that should generate $7.8 million annually for the district.
Residents say the practice unfairly targets new homeowners, but school officials contend it’s necessary to preserve their tax base and ensure all citizens are paying their fair share.
Sylvania Township resident Josh Adamski bought his home in 2016 for $189,900, which is $55,700 more than Lucas County Auditor’s Office records value the property. In May, he received a letter informing him his taxes could be hiked by about $2,000 per year because the purchase price was higher than the home’s valuation on the tax rolls.
“I have no problems with paying for the schools. I value education very much. It takes a village to raise a child. It takes everybody, so everybody has to pay their fair share,” said Mr. Adamski, who helped form a group called the Committee to Fight Unfair Taxes. “Well, I’m not paying my fair share. This is a money grab, is what this is.”
Public schools are allowed to contest the values of properties that sold for more than the auditor’s office says they’re worth, just as homeowners can contest values they think are too high.
School officials say the process ensures districts receive the tax revenue they’re entitled to, and therefore don’t have to ask voters to approve higher or more frequent levies to fund school operations. Sylvania Schools has an annual operating budget of about $81 million.
“The systematic real estate update and revaluation completed in Lucas County in 2009 and 2012 lowered real estate values of Sylvania Schools below levels previously certified for some of the district’s operating levies,” Sylvania Treasurer Lisa Shanks said. “As a result, these levies collect less than the amount voters approved.”
During the recession the district lost money as homeowners filed to have their home values reduced, therefore reducing the taxes they owe.
“We lost millions in revenue,” school board President Stephen Rothschild said. “This is just the flip side of that. Values have now increased.”
Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez in May asked all school boards to drop their complaints to the county’s board of revision, at least until 2018 when property valuations are set to be updated. All school districts in Lucas County — save for Ottawa Hills — filed board of revision complaints in the past decade, auditor’s records show.
The auditor publicly called out Sylvania Schools in part because their complaints rose from 45 in 2015 to 256 in 2016, but also because voters in November approved a 5.7-mill levy in November, which should generate $7.8 million annually for the district.
“The big difference with Sylvania is they were just hit with the levy increase. So people were prepared for that increase, but not for another one on top of it,” Ms. Lopez said. “I think they have the right to question the school board about this.”
Sylvania Schools officials contested more properties in 2016 than in years past because the district previously only filed complaints when properties sold for $300,000 or more above listed value. The district now looks into those with deviations above $50,000.
The auditor estimated Sylvania Schools would collect more than $580,000 in additional funds from tax year 2016, should the board of revisions rule that all contested properties’ values be adjusted to reflect their sale prices. Mr. Rothschild said he thinks it is the board’s responsibility to the district’s entire tax base to collect all the revenue they can before going to the voters to ask for a levy.
“There are thousands and thousands of taxpayers that would be adversely affected if we didn’t try to collect those taxes that we’re legally entitled to,” he said.
He added the district’s attorney will negotiate with homeowners who think the complaint is unfair or unreasonable.
“We do recognize that it’s unfair to take into consideration a new home value when they only lived in the home part of the year,” Ms. Shanks said.
Mr. Adamski said he feels he and other residents are being singled out by the board for buying new homes, and he is worried it will discourage new families from buying in the community.
“I understand it’s business on the school board’s part. They have the right to do it,” Mr. Adamski said. “They can do this, but it doesn’t make it right, either. They just passed the levy in 2016.”
Members of The Committee to Fight Unfair Taxes plan to speak Monday at Sylvania Schools’ board meeting.
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