Our Views: Rock County portion of property tax bill is reasonable

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Rock County residents received 2014 property tax bills in recent days. These bills come at the same time as credit card bills inflated due to holiday shopping.

Many families wonder how they’ll pay their tax bills, the first half of which are due Jan. 31. Residents also might wonder why the tax bills seem higher every year when wages remain stagnant. Who’s most to blame? Which taxing authority is holding the line, and which boosted taxes the most?

For Janesville residents, five units of government take slices of property taxes. According to city documents, the state’s levy, by far the smallest, decreased 2.63 percent compared to 2013. The Janesville School District’s fell 0.10 percent. Blackhawk Technical College’s inched up 1.4 percent. The city of Janesville’s rose 2.39 percent. Rock County’s climbed the most, 2.7 percent.

Wait a minute, you might say. Is that because the county seems to do business with little media scrutiny? Shouldn’t the county hold the line better when it also charges a sales tax?

Rock County’s books show spending will increase $11.24 million, or 6.22 percent, and that the county’s overall tax rate will rise 2.26 percent. County Administrator Craig Knutson has reasonable explanations for both.

First, he suggests, it can be unfair to compare the county’s tax rate to a municipality’s because the county’s rate is based on equalized property values. If, for example, the tax dollars needed remained the same but property values fell 50 percent, the county’s tax rate would double. As it turned out, equalized values did dip almost 3 percent, meaning the county tax rate would have gone up even if spending was flat.

Second, Knutson points to where the extra money is going. Nearly half of the increase in capital expenditures is earmarked to improve County G, or Beloit Avenue, and build a new leg of county highway from Beloit’s north side to Shopiere Road. The state and federal governments will pick up the largest share of the County G project because the road will serve as an alternate route during expansion of Interstate 90/39. The upgrade, however, will benefit the whole county, particularly when it improves Blackhawk Technical College access.

Third, almost half of the $5.6 million increase in operational monies will go to the efforts of seven counties to implement the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. While the money is divvied up between the seven, all of it is running through Rock County’s books. Omit these dollars, and Rock County’s operational expenditures rise only 1.9 percent.

In recent years, Knutson has tried to apply any expected increase in sales tax revenues to capital projects. That holds down borrowing costs. Capital investments not only benefit projects such as County G but other countywide needs such as switching from analog to digital emergency radio equipment.

County government involves much more than sheriff’s patrols, snowplowing and the 4-H fair. The county operates our jail and a new nursing home. It cares for the elderly, the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill and children who need protective services. The county administers what state government directs, and Madison money stretches only so far.

Knutson has overseen county budgets for three decades. His explanations for 2014 taxing and spending are good ones. The fact that the county hears little public outcry from year to year says something about this astute administrator.

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