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December 31, 2012 | 11:51 AM
I hate to end the year writing about tax bills, but I have received more calls on the subject this year than I have in a long time.

For every call I get, I'm sure there are many other taxpayers with the same questions on their minds. Not every call ends on a high note, but I do find that there is a fair amount of confusion on the topic.

Some taxpayers get sticker shock when they open their bills and reach for the phone before taking a closer look. When you pay your tax bill you are actually funding a number of different units of government, not just Walworth County.

Typical taxing jurisdictions that appear on your bill include the state of Wisconsin, Walworth County, the town or municipality in which you live, your local school district or districts and Gateway Technical College. Each one of these jurisdictions is authorized by state law to impose property taxes and is governed by an independent board or council.

Each jurisdiction establishes its annual budget through a series of public meetings and hearings. Since the taxes in the bill that you just received were levied to support 2013 budgets, the time to state your views on taxes was at those meetings.

One taxpayer pointed out, however, that he works several jobs just to pay his taxes and doesn't have time to keep track of five or more local budgets. He has a point. Wisconsin has more than its share of taxing jurisdictions, which makes it difficult for people to understand exactly who is making spending decisions.

Walworth County has frozen its tax levy for the last two years. Despite this fact, taxpayers call me and report that their county taxes have gone up by $100 or more since last year. The tax bill, itself, doesn't help. It contains a column labeled "% Tax Change."

It is understandable, but incorrect for taxpayers to look at this column and conclude that a particular jurisdiction increased spending by this percentage. In reality, the "% Tax Change" column represents the percentage by which your share of the county tax levy increased or decreased over the past year. Since the county has not increased its overall tax burden, if your share of taxes went up, someone else's went down.

Property assessments and equalized value are keys to solving this mystery. The increase or decrease in the value of your property, relative to other property owners, determines, in the case of this year's county tax bill, at least, whether you will owe more or less than last year.

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Consider the hypothetical county of Badger. To make things simple we will give it an annual budget of $1,000 and two property owners. In 2011 the homes of both of our residents are valued at $100,000 each.

The county's overall equalized value, the price that would be fetched if all taxable property was sold, decreased by 11 percent or $1.6 billion since 2009. That decrease, however, has not been distributed equally across the county. If your property has maintained its value in recent years, you are likely shouldering a larger proportion of the tax burden.

In Wisconsin, assessments are prepared at the local level. Each town, village and city hires an assessor or contracts with a real estate appraisal company to determine the value of each home or parcel of land.

When the local process is concluded, the DOR takes its turn by "equalizing" all of the valuations from the various jurisdictions. This ensures that there is an "apples-to-apples" comparison of property values across the state. The DOR summed up the situation better than I can in its publication on equalized value: "Property tax is a topic that we can all relate to but few of us can explain in any detail."

The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board.

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