The questions about flood recovery came fast and furious at an Iowa community meeting in April, just one month after floodwaters hit eastern Nebraska and western Iowa.
Several residents asked variations on the same question: What about taxes due on properties that had significant flood damage? Would residents still have to pay taxes on homes that are uninhabitable or farm fields that are too wet to plant?
“Don’t pay ’em,” someone shouted from the audience, to laughter and applause.
Nebraskans in disaster-stricken areas have another option besides tax evasion, thanks to a law change approved by legislators and signed by Gov. Pete Ricketts last month. Owners of properties destroyed or significantly damaged by flooding, a tornado or other natural disasters can request a new property assessment — what could amount to a tax break if officials agree that a property’s value has dropped.
That applies to all types of properties — homes, businesses and agricultural land. The measure amends a previous state law that required a property’s assessed value to be set as of Jan. 1 — no exceptions, even if a house burned down on Jan. 2.
State Sen. Steve Erdman, the amendment’s sponsor, actually introduced the bill last year and again this year before the March floods. The proposal gained new urgency, and supporters, afterward.
“Hopefully the word will get out,” said Debbie Churchill, the Dodge County assessor. “People, take advantage of it. Don’t wait until the last minute.”
There are fairly strict parameters and a narrow window to apply:
- The damage has to have occurred between Jan. 1 and July 1 of the current assessment year.
- “Significant property damage” is generally defined as damage exceeding 20% of the assessed value of land, a structure or the property’s total assessed value, if it’s in an area with a disaster declaration or if the property has been declared unlivable.
- Owners have until July 15 to fill out and send in a form — available at http://www.revenue.nebraska.gov/PAD/forms/f_425.pdf — to their county assessor and county clerk.
- The damage cannot be man-made — you can’t apply for a reassessment if your house caught fire because of a lit cigarette, for example.
- A county board of equalization has final say on any assessment adjustments, which must be approved before July 25 or, if an extension is requested, Aug. 10.
Thousands of properties across Nebraska could be eligible for valuation adjustments. Churchill estimates that at least 800 homesin the Fremont area alone are substantially damaged, plus more in hard-hit towns like North Bend and Winslow. Roughly 900 have been affected by flooding in Douglas County, although not all may meet the damage threshold. In Sarpy County, hundreds, maybe 1,000 or more, homes, businesses and fields covered by sand or water could qualify for some property tax relief.
That’s not the case in Iowa.
Barring any change in state law, residents will have to pay full taxes on the preflood assessed value of their property. Iowa taxes are paid nearly two years in arrears, so the tax bills that will appear in mailboxes this August reflect valuations as of Jan. 1, 2018. Residents could appeal for a lower valuation due to flood damage, but that wouldn’t be reflected in tax bills until 2021, at the earliest.
“It’s difficult to tell people devastated by flooding, ‘Sorry, you got to pay taxes for two more years on your house that floated down the river,” said Brenda Mintle, the Fremont County, Iowa, Assessor.
Kay Askew lives in Omaha but owns and rents out two houses in Pacific Junction, Iowa, a small city inundated by floodwaters. Her tenants had to relocate and both houses have to be stripped of the ruined drywall, insulation and flooring inside. In April, she said it stung that she would still have to pay taxes on two properties that were all but destroyed.
Askew said she understands that taxes are paid in arrears, “but it still doesn’t seem right.”
After devastating flooding in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, area in 2008, Linn County officials offered a tax abatement to displaced residents and business owners. For a one-year period, they could apply to not pay taxes while their property was unlivable or unusable. Local taxing entities, including school districts, had to sign on to the provision, and more than 2,700 applications were received.
Whether new valuations go into effect now or in two years, some towns and counties are already worried about the toll flood damage will take on the local tax base. If a portion of property valuations decrease in a small town, that could affect how much tax revenue is collected at a time when some places are scrambling for funds to fix mangled roads, bridges and water pipes.
“The fear is out there,” said Christina Govig, the assessor in Mills County, Iowa. “You’re going to lose so much value, you just are.”
In Nebraska, the possibility of tax savings and amounts will vary by circumstances. Even if a house was swept away in a flood, for example, the owner could still be taxed on the value of the land left behind. If someone renovates or rebuilds, the property valuation will change again. Because Nebraska taxes are paid one year in arrears, any adjusted valuation this year will show up on tax bills mailed in December and due in 2020.
State and county officials are taking different tacks to get the word out through traditional and social media sources. The Nebraska Department of Revenue uploaded the reassessment form on its website Wednesday. Sarpy County posted a notice on its website, the neighborhood app Nextdoor and Facebook groups, and is preparing a mailer to send out to property owners who may be eligible.
Douglas County Assessor Diane Battiato said, “I’d love to see radio stations do PSAs (public service announcements).”
Sarpy County Assessor Dan Pittman has no doubt that residents will apply — they’ve been calling his office since March.
Nebraska officials have one very important tip: document, document, document. Property owners applying for a reassessment should submit anything that shows the extent of the damage, such as photos, letters from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, contractor estimates or the difference between this year and last year’s crop production. Assessment teams may have to do on-site inspections, too.
“We need something besides just their word for it,” Dodge County’s Churchill said.