THE BLADE/LORI KING
Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez’s claim that she “lowered property taxes” brought a round of derisive harrumphs from her opponents in a live televised debate Wednesday night.
And they are right — the auditor doesn’t raise or lower taxes. But try to tell that semantic distinction to Lucas County taxpayers who — because of the 2012 countywide revaluation — on average are paying lower property taxes today.
According to the auditor’s office, the total Lucas County property tax bill for 2012 was $530.6 million, a reduction from the previous year’s tax bill of $561.6 million — about $31 million.
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Political critics have jumped on Ms. Lopez’s assertion in her television commercial that “as auditor ... I lowered property taxes” as flat-out inaccurate.
Ms. Lopez stuck to her claim during the debate aired on WTVG-TV, Channel 13, and co-sponsored by The Blade.
“This is actually the first time as auditor that values had to be reduced across the board,” Ms. Lopez said, referring to the revaluations of property that occurred during her term so far. “Yes, we did give fair and equitable values, and as a result of that ... taxpayers did receive lower values, did receive lower taxes.
“And I look forward to making the city of Toledo work for citizens and businesses as we have done for the auditor’s office,” Ms. Lopez added.
Ms. Lopez’s other opponents saw that as her claiming power she doesn’t have.
“It is ridiculous. The auditor measures the value of the property, which is set by market conditions. To claim that she’s lowered taxes is false,” said Councilman Joe McNamara, Ms. Lopez’s only Democratic rival in the eight-way primary election taking place on Tuesday.
He said that if Ms. Lopez deserves credit for lowering taxes, then she also deserves blame for people being “underwater” in their mortgages — owing more money for a property than it is worth on the market — because the home’s value has been reduced.
Independent incumbent Mayor Mike Bell said, “It’s something that is required, and she did what she is supposed to do. It’s no different than stopping at the red light because the light is red.”
Councilman D. Michael Collins, also a political independent, rated Ms. Lopez’s claim as “really not honest.”
“There are 88 counties, and you performed, Ms. Lopez, no different than the other 87 auditors,” Mr. Collins said. “The auditor does not raise taxes. The auditor does not lower taxes. The auditor acts based on the decisions of the voters.”
Ms. Lopez’s chief deputy, Peter Rancatore, said Thursday that Ms. Lopez came into office in 2007 determined to roll back valuations set by her predecessor, Republican Larry Kaczala, in his 2006 countywide revaluation.
“She reduced values because the values were out of whack. People were paying more than they should have,” Mr. Rancatore said.
According to Mr. Rancatore, Mr. Kaczala left Ms. Lopez without enough money in the auditor’s account to carry out a corrective countywide revaluation, so she addressed the problems by alerting members of the public that they had the right to come in to the Board of Revision and request a reduction in their valuations.
In 2009, he said, Ms. Lopez implemented a 13 percent countywide reduction in property values because of her strong belief that housing valuations were still too high in comparison to their true market value.
He said Ms. Lopez’s reductions in property values — and the resulting drop in tax revenues — upset school boards, county government, and others.
“She was concerned for them, but it’s her responsibility to lower the values because they were out of whack with the market. We fixed the values,” Mr. Rancatore said.
Jerome German, who was director of real estate and chief assessor under Mr. Kaczala, bristled at Ms. Lopez’s claims. He said it was true that values under Mr. Kaczala were too high by his last full year in office, 2006.
“Unfortunately, with the way we collect taxes and what happened in the economy, we went in the tank, and I would argue we were overvalued at that point,” Mr. German said. He said that “perfect storm” of the national collapse in home values in 2006 cost Mr. Kaczala his re-election when Ms. Lopez made an issue of excessive valuations.
“Yes, she she did lower values in the last revaluation. Lower taxes are just a consequence of that action. The way the property tax works, it’s like a balloon — you decrease the size in one spot and it increases in the other,” said Mr. German, who retired from county government the day Ms. Lopez took office in 2007.
Under a longstanding Ohio law, House Bill 920, taxing entities are allowed to collect up to the total amount of money that was raised in the first year of a levy. Thus, as property values rose, the “effective rate” of tax levies would be reduced from their original voted amount to prevent violation of H.B. 920. As long as there was still room beneath the levy cap, if one owner’s valuation was reduced, the overall effective rate would be increased to ensure the school district was able to collect its full revenue. Mr. Rancatore said most of the levies have risen to their voted cap.
He recalled that Ms. Lopez aggressively informed the public about the board of revision process — something, he said, that other auditors didn’t like to advertise.
But Mr. German said Ms. Lopez could have gone to the commissioners for a supplemental appropriation, given the seriousness of the housing collapse. He also said Ms. Lopez fired technical, statistical, and computer employees who could have helped her carry out a corrective revaluation.
Abby Arnold, Ms. Lopez’s chief of staff, said the revaluations are not the only way that Ms. Lopez lowered property taxes. She aggressively visited community groups, as well as taking out newspaper and radio ads, to promote the board of revision and to dramatically increase the number of people getting the Homestead Exemption.
Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken, a Democrat, said Ms. Lopez did “an excellent job” managing the revaluation, but he said it resulted in some tax bills going up, for a time. “She did a very efficient and proactive job evaluating property values. The auditor’s job, per se, is not to raise or lower property taxes,” he said.
He noted the lowering of property values is a double-edged sword for a homeowner: It results in a lower tax bill, but it also contributes to a loss of market value because the auditor’s valuation is one of the factors that real estate appraisers use.
Not so, said Mr. Rancatore. “The market does that. She doesn’t have anything to do with that,” he said.