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Los Alamos residents should be proud of themselves for voting a large property tax increase to support modernization of our school buildings. Now the question is: must our property tax bills really increase that much?
If this question sounds confusing, please keep reading. At issue are hundreds of dollars a year for every property owner. Renters ultimately pay, too.
Property taxes are proportional to the value of real estate. Currently, the owner of a $300,000 home in Los Alamos pays about $1700 per year in property taxes. (All numbers are rounded.) About $800 of that goes to the county, $700 to local schools, and $200 to the State and UNM-LA. Commercial properties pay about 25 percent more.
The new school bonds would raise the tax on that home by about $550 to $2250 per year. We’ll see that on our annual tax bills starting in November.
I believe the County government can and should lower its portion of our property tax to offset the increase in school taxes.
The tax base in Los Alamos is unusual. By far the largest part of it is the Laboratory, which pays Gross Receipts Tax (GRT) to the State and County. But the Federal property upon which it sits is exempt from property taxes. While the Federal government originally built most of our schools, the burden of maintaining or replacing them falls on the private property owner in Los Alamos.
Three years ago, the county government saw a whopping increase in its GRT revenues when the for-profit LANS took over management of the lab from the tax-exempt non-profit University of California. The state saw a similar increase. The county also increased the GRT rate by a half-percent. But our local schools benefited not a penny.
At the state level, education and other government functions compete for the same pot of funds. Locally, they are separate. There may have been ways for the county government to directly assist the schools and reduce the need for the schools to ask voters for a large property tax increase. But there was really no enthusiasm to explore those options.
Lowering the county’s portion of the property tax would effectively shift some of those Lab-based GRT revenues to the schools instead of increasing the tax burden on the private property owner.
The county government can clearly live on less tax revenue. We need only look at the size, scope, and cost of the White Rock Fire Station, Airport Basin, and Judicial-Police-Jail complex to see what happens when a government thinks it has too much money. Each of those necessary projects is costing millions more than it should.
Less obviously, the number of employees and associated recurring costs of county government keeps rising more than ten times faster than our population.
Voters did what we had to do “for the kids.” Now it is time for the county government to do what it should for the taxpayers. The county can and should cut its portion of the property tax to offset the large increase in school taxes.
Then the County should consider what other legal and appropriate means it has, beyond facilitating the Trinity Site development, to benefit the schools.