What is the House Value Needed to “Breakeven” in Your City?

Dear Lewis:

My mayor wants to know the value of a single-family residential home necessary to “breakeven,” meaning for residential to pay its own way?

Dear Colleague:

Thank you for asking me my least favorite question. However, it is an important question, and I will try to answer. But be forewarned, I’m going to give you my shortest answer or at least one you can work through on a cafe napkin. There is a reason.

This is a tough one. The answer has to be understood in the context of mix. If you had nothing but property taxes and nothing but residential, then the answer would be easier. It would be exactly the average value of a single family home available from your appraisal district. I know I can’t satisfy you with that answer that fits into a non-existent world. Yet it is instructive to frame your response starting with a pure single family residential community. Undertanding this one point makes the remainder of the explanation easier to digest.

Yet when the mix of all General Fund revenues is considered, and the tax base internal mix is considered, then the portion paid by the residential class forms the basis for saying the average home value is paying their share – and higher than average value is paying more than their share of their pie with the opposite also being true.

That sounds like circular thinking, but there you have it.

Try Harder, Lewis!

A better way of looking at the cost question is to ignore revenues for a minute and look only at the expenditure side initially.

If you are spending $36 million in the General Fund budget, and you have a population of 50,000, then the services equate to $720 per capita. If you have 3 people per household, then you need $2,160 per household. You can conclude the need for an AVERAGE house value of $540,000 ($2,160 / $0.40 O&M Rate * 100) to carry the costs before other revenues help lower the property tax requirement.

If you have a revenue base that yields 40% from other sources, then you only need an average house value of $324,000 ($540,000 * 60%), net of exemptions.

So, what is your average home value on the tax rolls?

It is $200,000, you say. Hmm! That’s a respectable amount. Let’s dig deeper to understand $540,000 on one end of the spectrum and $200,000 on the other end.

I expected your average home value to be considerably less since we’ve left out a million things, most notably the non-residential tax base. And here’s the deal. Some cities have little and some have much.

Here’s the way I would answer the question with necessary generalities included:

“If City of Fiscal Bliss had only property taxes (and then only a residential tax base) to cover the cost of general government services, it would require an average house value of about $540,000 to cover costs or else a very sizable tax rate increase applied to our average house value of $200,000 currently. Fortunately, we do have a respectable commercial tax that lowers the burden on the homeowner. We also have sales taxes, franchise taxes and some user fees to help lower the property tax burden. Therefore, we conclude that our average house value times our General Fund tax rate of $0.40 per $100 or $800 is our net breakeven cost even though property taxes alone would not cover the true service cost of $2,160 per home.”

Oh my! You aren’t going to like my answer, are you?

As I said, it’s complicated. The clue that this was not an easy question was when the  Mayor said average. That was the signal that the Mayor’s field of view was going to be too narrow. Here is the trap. You want to explain, but the Mayor wants the time, not how a watch is made. So, blurt out $540,000 and then ask if you can explain. I’m pretty sure you will have the Mayor’s attention with the obligatory pregnant pause following your incredulous number.

If you have an average home value of $200,000 in your community, then that should mean you are striving to add house values much greater than the average. It is a fact that the true cost is $2,160 per home, and it is also true that it would take a $540,000 at an O&M Rate of $0.40 per $100 to generate the true cost of service.

But thank goodness you have other revenue sources. Your citizens pay a sizeable amount cost recovery in the form of sales taxes and franchise taxes. You also have direct fees for some services. Otherwise, your average SF value would have to be $540,000 or else your tax rate on an average of $200,000 would have to be $1.08! ($2,160 / $200,000).

Did I just blow your ears back?

But We Paid a High-Priced Consultant for Another Answer

A more elaborate analysis would be necessary to offer much more help here. And while the calculations could get more sophisticated, and the wording much more verbose, I’m not sure the accuracy would be better or the conditional wording more understandable.

Does this help?

Lewis

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