It’s that time of year when homeowners receive their ad valorem (AKA property tax) bill. Or, if they pay through their mortgage company, they receive a statement. Unfortunately, I suspect the vast majority of us just shrug and move on. But for the amount of money we’re paying (usually thousands of dollars), we really should take five minutes and consider where our hard-earned dollars are going. As part of my continuing pursuit of civic literacy, here’s a breakdown of a typical property tax statement in Oklahoma County.
First of all, as background, property taxes are collected by your county treasurer. No higher level of government collects property tax. You don’t get a property tax bill from the federal government or the state government. But your one property tax bill from your county includes line items for several other local levels of government, in addition to the county, all of which have their own governing bodies.
Depending on where you live in the county, you will have different line items, because different homes within the county are in different school districts, cities, etc. And of course, your bill will fluctuate based on the assessed value of your home, a process far too complicated to get into here.
With that, and referencing the picture, here are a few comments on each line item found on a typical Oklahoma County property tax bill.
Oklahoma Countywide Schools: This money is small in comparison to the other line items. It goes into a pool for all school districts in Oklahoma County (of which there are two dozen, by the way). More to come on education at the end…
City-County Health: This line item is particularly interesting if you live in Oklahoma or Tulsa counties. Those two counties must fund their own city-county health departments, and they are funded through this line item on your property tax bill. The other 75 counties of Oklahoma are funded by the state. I have found that it is not uncommon to find Oklahoma City and Tulsa taxpayers funding programs that are implemented exclusively outside of Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The health department is governed by a board appointed by the Mayor of Oklahoma City and the county commissioners.
Metro Library: Cities build the library buildings within their city limits with their own tax dollars, but the operations for those libraries are funded through this line item on your property tax bill. The library system is governed by a board appointed by mayors and county commissioners.
Oklahoma County: Most of the county’s budget comes from this line item, which is actually a relatively small percentage of your property tax bill. However, in some ways that makes sense in a place like Oklahoma County, where most infrastructure is taken care of by cities. But, this line item does include the costs of the sheriff’s department. Ultimately, the elected county commissioners are responsible for these funds.
Metro Tech Career Tech: This item will vary depending on what career tech district you live in. Career tech is the modern phrase for what some people still call vo-tech. There are actually several districts in Oklahoma County, and (hardly anyone knows this) they actually each have an elected board that determines their budget, and therefore the size of this line item on your property tax bill.
City of Oklahoma City: This item will vary depending on what city you live in. Unlike all the other line items on your bill, this one is limited by law to strictly capital costs, not operations. In other words, this line item largely goes to roads and bridges maintained by the city. If you live in Oklahoma County, chances are you spend 90 percent of your automobile time driving on streets maintained by a city (as opposed to the state or county), and those streets are funded by this line item. The size of this line item is determined by the voters when they vote on multi-year bond issues. The last one approved by the voters of Oklahoma City was in 2007. When people say that the city should spend more money fixing up roads, they are ultimately saying that this line item on their property tax bill should grow larger (even if they don’t realize that’s what they’re saying).
Oklahoma City Schools: This item will vary depending on what school district you live in. As you see from the picture, it’s by far the largest item on your tax bill. It is not, however, the only source of funding for your local school district. School districts generally also receive funding from the state, and (in recent decades) the federal government. Your school district has an elected school board who helps determine the size of this item, limited by some legal constraints, and limited by the voters, who must approve bond issues for capital projects (just like at the city level).
I hope you found this informative, and I hope you made it this far. You write a big check every year for property taxes, and you ought to know where the money goes.