By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
A task force formed to evaluate the fairness of property taxes across the county plans to finally start its business next week, more than 18 months after its formation was recommended by an outside assessment.
The task force, one of 40 recommendations in a 99-page March 2012 report by the International Association of Assessing Officers, plans to meet at 9 a.m. Oct. 25 in Hilo council chambers.
An attempt in August to hold a meeting dissolved into controversy, after Finance Department staff said they couldn’t be on the task force because of Sunshine Law concerns.
Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille had inherited the project from her predecessor, Pete Hoffmann, who had convinced the council to pay $40,000 for the study.
“We haven’t yet officially had a meeting to do anything,” Wille said. “We’re trying to move this along as quickly as we can.”
The County Council on Wednesday passed a resolution removing the staffers as voting members and specifying they will serve as support staff instead. The Real Property Tax Stakeholder’s Task Force now includes two County Council members and three members of the public.
Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi was named the chairman.
The resolution marks the sixth time the council tackled the membership of the task force, a controversial issue that literally hits home for property owners, many of whom have complained that their taxes are unfair compared to their neighbors’.
Some of those claims are backed up by the report.
“Based on the limited information available to us, there is a remarkable variation in effective tax rates among similarly situated properties,” the report says.
The average difference between tax rates among the island’s population concentrations designated by the U.S. Census Bureau exceeds 300 percent, according to the report.
Not only are property taxes uneven, they’re also comparatively low, the report says. Hawaii County’s owner-occupied property rates are generally less than 0.2 percent of property value, compared to a more typical rate of 1.3 percent in other areas of the country.
Council members, however, are hoping the task force will find a way to lower taxes by making them more equitable.
The task force will tackle discrepancies and perceived inequities in how the county values property for tax purposes and the rates applied to the property classifications. With nine property classifications and a variety of exemptions for everything from age to disability to length of ownership, the system has become so complex that property owners often have a hard time understanding it.
The task force plans to submit quarterly reports to the County Council.
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.