Bill would change how property tax levies are worded for voters

Ohio House Bill 140 seeks to change the ballot language for levies in the state. This is a sample ballot of a Trotwood property tax issue voters approved in May 2019. FILE
Ohio House Bill 140 seeks to change the ballot language for levies in the state. This is a sample ballot of a Trotwood property tax issue voters approved in May 2019. FILE

Credit: FILE

Credit: FILE

Proponents say simpler language is needed; opponents say changes are misleading

A plan to change ballot language for tax levies across Ohio has support from a group which calculates property taxes and opposition from entities which spend them.

Ohio House Bill 140 calls for ballot language to be written in a way that would tell voters what levies would cost the owner of a home valued at $100,000 and how much the amount the tax would generate annually.

Proponents tout the bill as a move for transparency and uniformity. Tax levies typically are sought by cities, school districts, townships, and other entities. They often seek voter support for property taxes to be collected over a period of years for a specific purpose - school funding; police and fire services; roads and bridge upkeep or other uses.

Ohio House Bill 140 seeks to change the ballot language for levies in the state. This is a sample ballot that shows how the ballot language currently is presented - this from a Vandalia-Butler school district property tax issue voters approved in 2020. FILE
Ohio House Bill 140 seeks to change the ballot language for levies in the state. This is a sample ballot that shows how the ballot language currently is presented - this from a Vandalia-Butler school district property tax issue voters approved in 2020. FILE

Credit: FILE

Credit: FILE

The plan’s detractors include groups representing many Dayton-area taxing authorities. They say levies are too complex to be explained in the terms under consideration and also the bill is not needed because the information the bill calls for is often readily available to voters through other means.

Several local taxing authorities surveyed by the Dayton Daily News — Beavercreek, Centerville, Kettering, Trotwood and Kettering schools, among them — either declined to say if they favor or oppose the bill, or said more time is needed to assess the plan introduced in February.

The bill’s early version apparently “does not achieve increased transparency and understanding by voters,” Diane Farrell, a Dayton Metro Library director, said in an email.

The metro library has more than 15 branches across Montgomery County. Voters approved an operating levy for the system in 2009 and a capital bond issue in 2012 to renovate the system’s buildings.

Trotwood voters by a wide margin supported the renewal of a property tax two years ago. FILE
Trotwood voters by a wide margin supported the renewal of a property tax two years ago. FILE

Credit: FILE

Credit: FILE

Bond issues are included in HB 140, the second attempt in recent years to change property tax ballot language created in 1939, said Ohio Rep. Derek Merrin (R-Wauseon), its primary sponsor.

Merrin said the County Auditors’ Association of Ohio supports this current effort. The group did not back the previous effort to change the language.

‘Mathematical gyrations’

Ohio county boards of elections are responsible for approving ballot language for local issues and sending it to the Secretary of State’s office for review, according to state records.

Current levy ballot language can use phrases such as “at a rate not exceeding one (1) mill for each one dollar of valuation, which amounts to ten cents ($0.10) for each one hundred dollars of valuation, for five (5) years,” Ohio records show.

Greene County Auditor David Graham said this kind of language is less than ideal because most people don’t understand tax valuation, which is equal to 35% of the appraised value.

The city of Beavercreek has sought voter support for levies to help fund services. FILE
The city of Beavercreek has sought voter support for levies to help fund services. FILE

Credit: FILE

Credit: FILE

Additionally, “using $100 as the value base is ludicrous given current property values,” Graham told a house committee during testimony last month on HB 140 for the auditors’ group.

“The auditors’ association is supporting this bill because it adds transparency to the ballot language and puts the cost of the levy into terms that are very easy to understand,” Graham told the Dayton Daily News.

“The language to me now is pretty meaningless,” he said.

With certain levies, “even if you can do all of the mathematical gyrations, you’re still going to get the wrong answer because you don’t know anything about effective tax rates when you’re sitting there…voting on an issue,” Graham added.

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HB 140 also has the backing of the Americans for Prosperity, the Ohio Manufactured Homes Association and the Ohio Real Estate Investors Association.

The bill is opposed by the Ohio Association of County Boards, Public Children Services Association of Ohio, Buckeye Association of School Administrators, Ohio Association of School Business Officials, Ohio Library Council, Ohio School Boards Association and the Ohio Township Association.

Dayton Metro Library “as well as our peer institutions around the state believe this language will likely lead to confusion and misunderstanding,” Farrell said. “We believe taxing entities already provide accurate information to potential voters during levy and bond campaign processes.”

‘Serious concerns’ with bill

Beavercreek, Centerville and Trotwood city officials all said they support transparency with voters. With no income tax to fund city services,

Beavercreek relies heavily on property tax levies to pay for them. About 77% of city revenue for 2021 is funded by levies, not including pass through grants, City Manager Pete Landrum said.

Trotwood Deputy City Manager Stephanie Kellum believes “the intention of the changes is to provide more clarity for voters,” and said the city uses similar language as HB 140 proposes.

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Local officials who “serve as stewards of the public’s money do so in a way that educates our citizens regarding the value they receive for living in their community,” Centerville City Manager Wayne Davis said.

“It can get very confusing very quickly with the multitude of ‘asks’ that come to the voters for various levies in their communities,” he added.

Beavercreek schools and Washington Twp. both deferred comment to their respective statewide associations. The group of school business officials and the township association – in a statement issued with statewide organizations representing school administrators, libraries and school boards – said it was “confusing and misleading” to use appraised value.

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“This term is defined as true value in money of real property only,” according to the statement. “The use of this term assumes all taxpayers are residential/agricultural property owners and does not acknowledge rollbacks and the recently expanded homestead exemption.”

Similarly, the state school boards group has “serious concerns” with the bill, said Will Schwartz, its deputy director of legislative services.

“The nature of levies is a complex issue and ballot language by necessity is technical in nature and is intended to reflect the amount of taxes collected by the taxing entity – not for an individual’s tax liability as a result of a particular ballot issue,” Schwartz said.

The bill has been the focus of hearings in the House Ways and Means Committee, which Merrin heads. He hopes to vote it out of committee within a month.

Merrin said his previous bill was passed by the House and Senate before being included as a provision in a 2019 budget bill.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine vetoed that section of the bill. But Merrin told the Dayton Daily News his current version “has a lot of support.”

BY THE NUMBERS

•247B: Assessed valuation of real property in Ohio in 2017.

•1939: Year the Ohio Revised Code required millage expressed in a dollar amount related to $100

of property valuation.

•229: Pages in House Bill 140.

•19: Property tax issues on the ballot in Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties in May 2021.

Sources: Ohio Department of Taxation, Ohio Secretary of State’s Office, Ohio General Assembly, city of Beavercreek, boards of elections in Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties.

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