Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez is prepared to give local tax authorities more than $4.5 million in an effort to curtail school districts from contesting property values to gain more money from homeowners.
Ms. Lopez’s hefty savings account is a direct result of her cutting 30 percent of her budget since she was elected in 2007, she told The Blade on Thursday.
The bulk of the $5.2 million in the auditor’s savings was accrued by consolidating her staff. There were 143 employees in the auditor’s office in 2007 compared to 112 in 2016, according to Lucas County Annual Financial Reports.
“If you eliminate close to 40 positions with health benefits and people making an average of $50,000 that adds up,” Ms. Lopez said. “It didn’t happen overnight.”
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The county auditor receives a portion of property tax dollars that go into a real estate assessment fund. Ms. Lopez said she’ll keep $700,000 in savings and refund the remaining $4.5 million to local taxing authorities, more than half of which will be apportioned to Lucas County school districts.
The school districts stand to receive more than $2.8 million. The remaining $1.7 million would be distributed between Metroparks Toledo, TARTA, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, the Toledo Zoo, and other area entitites.
But Ms. Lopez’s primary reason for this multi-million savings account is to alleviate the burden of homeowners whose property tax bills increase as a result of school districts contesting their home values, she said.
Disputing home values is a long-standing practice that allows schools to collect extra funding. All school districts in Lucas County, with the exception of Ottawa Hills Schools, filed complaints refuting the values of homes, thereby increasing homeowners’ property tax bills.
Toledo Public Schools filed 167 complaints in 2016, followed by 101 by Springfield, 99 by Anthony Wayne, 50 by Washington Local, 44 by Maumee, and 25 by Oregon.
The disputes over school boards challenging property values have grown more intense in recent weeks with homeowners across several school districts publicly denouncing the practice.
Sylvania recently agreed to stop filing residential property value complaints, while Springfield schools just did it this week.
The Springfield Local Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday night to stop contesting values after Ms. Lopez offered to compensate the district for lost revenue.
Ms. Lopez is hoping that other school districts follow suit.
“With the state decreasing school funding, it put the school districts back against the wall,” Ms. Lopez said. “But homeowners shouldn’t be punished.”
Despite two districts agreeing to stop challenging residential property values, hundreds of homeowners throughout the county are still affected by the practice.
Lisa Majewski said she was distraught when she received a letter from Toledo Public Schools informing her that her Spencer Township property taxes will increase by $3,500 annually after the district contested the appraised value of her home.
“If my property taxes go up this much I won’t be able to afford this house and I will have to move,” said Ms. Majewski, who purchased her home last year. “My hopes and drams will go completely down the tubes.”
Ms. Lopez has scheduled a meeting with the remaining Lucas County school districts hoping she can persuade them to drop all residential property value complaints from 2016.
“This is putting school districts against citizens,” she said. “It’s time to take this matter up with the state of Ohio. The division in the community concerning property taxes is a byproduct of faulty state funding legislation.”
TPS Treasurer Ryan Stechschulte said he believes every property should be valued accurately in the district, but said the school board will review Ms. Lopez’s offer and analyze it to see if it is a viable option.
Under Ms. Lopez’s plan, the district would receive more than $900,000, which is more than any other school district.
In addition to trimming her staff, Ms. Lopez said she limited travel expenses, sold at least 10 vehicles that employees of the auditor’s office were driving, and even reduced office supplies.
“We didn’t need all the bells and whistles,” she said. “Every little thing mattered.”
Mark Wilson, business agent for Teamsters 20, which represents 12 managers and assistant managers in the auditor's office, said staffing has remained stable in the last 3 1/2 years.
"The numbers have been pretty steady," he said.
The United Auto Workers Local 12 represents 43 employees, ranging from line staff to professionals, in the auditor’s office. A spokesman for that local could not be reached comment.
The auditor’s $5.2 million is not a part of the general fund and state law permits her to use that money at her discretion.
“I could have spent this money or saved it, but I chose to save it for the taxpayers,” Ms. Lopez said.
Staff writer Mark Reiter contributed to this report.
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