Dan Walters

California property taxes show sharp gains, especially in Bay Area

Driven by the dot-com boom, property values has soared in San Francisco – and so has property tax revenue.
Driven by the dot-com boom, property values has soared in San Francisco – and so has property tax revenue. Bloomberg

County property tax assessors are reporting strong upticks in taxable values for the 2016-17 fiscal year that began July 1.

The total, when all the data are reported, will be close to the 6.16 percent gain estimated by Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget staff.

As the numbers emerge, they reveal several salient trends about the state’s property-tax system, which has been steeped in intense controversy for the past 38 years, ever since voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13’s tax limits.

First and foremost, property taxes generate a lot of money for schools and local governments.

The state has more than $5.5 trillion in taxable property that will produce, even with the 1 percent Proposition 13 limit, more than $55 billion in revenue this year and more than $60 billion when taxes for bonds and other debts are added.

That’s 12-plus times as much as the $4.9 billion collected in the year after Proposition 13 was passed in 1978, far surpassing the less than 10-fold increase in personal income since then or the nine-fold increase in state government revenue, principally from income and sales taxes.

The stark contrast makes liars out of those who contend that Proposition 13 destroyed California’s public finances. Even with its limits, property-tax revenues have been a powerful and growing revenue source, thanks to ever-rising property values and new construction to serve an ever-growing population.

Furthermore, although California’s 1 percent property tax rate is one of the nation’s lowest, the state’s ultra-high real estate values mean that actual property-tax bills for similar properties are quite similar to those in other states.

The Tax Foundation calculated that California’s per-capita property tax of $1,450 was 19th highest among the states and virtually identical to the national average of $1,434 in 2010, the last year it made such comparisons. It’s about $1,600 per capita now.

The latest data, however, also reveal that property tax benefits vary widely.

Property values in the booming San Francisco Bay Area far outpace those in the rest of the state, giving its governments big revenue increases to spend.

San Francisco leads with a whopping 8.8 percent increase in assessed value, and other counties in the region have big gains, such as Santa Clara’s 7.9 percent and San Mateo’s 7.6 percent.

Conversely, those in Southern California counties are generally below average. Los Angeles County, with a quarter of the state’s population and a quarter of its taxable property, registered a 5.58 percent gain and San Diego saw a 5.6 percent increase, trailed by Orange (5.44 percent), Riverside (5 percent) and San Bernardino (4.2 percent).

The latter’s subpar increase was also reflected in other interior California counties, such as 4.9 percent in Fresno and 4.64 percent in Sacramento. Kern County, very dependent on taxing underground petroleum reserves, suffered a 9 percent decline, due to low global oil prices.

One wonders whether the liberal Democrats who dominate Bay Area politics would be willing to share some of their property tax windfalls with poorer red-county cousins.