TOPEKA — The state Senate unanimously granted final passage Wednesday to a bill to make it possible for tornado-stricken residents in and around south Wichita to get back property taxes they had to pay after their homes were destroyed in April.
Senate Bill 165 passed with an amendment by a Sedgwick senator that also would allow Sedgwick County to join area cities’ efforts to jump-start the building industry by offering property tax breaks for buyers of newly-built homes.
But the heart of the bill is a provision to allow county commissions to abate property taxes levied after a home is destroyed in a disaster.
As state law stands now, property values and tax liability are established at the beginning of the year, so residents hit by the April 14 tornado were surprised and dismayed to get tax bills eight months after their homes were destroyed and the debris hauled to a landfill.
Eleven site-built homes and 134 mobile homes were wiped out, most in the Pinaire Mobile Home Park at the south edge of Wichita.
County officials said they wanted to give property tax relief for the balance of the year on the destroyed homes, but their hands were tied by state law.
Members of both the House and Senate moved to change that after a December report on the situation in The Wichita Eagle.
SB 165 was written to be retroactive to the beginning of 2012, so Sedgwick County could, if it chooses, give rebates to residents billed for property taxes after the destruction of their homes.
“It passed 40-0; that’s great,” said Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, who sponsored the bill with two other Wichita senators, Republican Mike Petersen and Democrat Oletha Faust-Goudeau.
“This gives them (the counties) more flexibility,” O’Donnell said.
“Now the House just needs to concur.”
HB 2063 takes a different approach to tax relief than the Senate version of the bill does.
It would offer owners of destroyed homes a variable state tax credit, shifting the cost of the lost property taxes from the county to the state.
Co-authors of that bill are Reps. Brandon Whipple, D-Wichita, and Joe Edwards, R-Haysville.
Whipple said a House committee plans to vote on HB 2063 on Thursday.
He said he thinks the House approach is better because the tax relief would be automatic and the cost would be spread across the state, not dependent on whether an individual county could afford to give up the revenue.
“If a tornado was to ravage a smaller county, that would leave them holding the bag, and they wouldn’t have money to rebuild,” he said.
While the House bill as written would apply only to future disasters, Whipple said he expects an attempt to make it retroactive to cover the April tornado victims.
Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, attached an amendment to the Senate bill to allow counties to participate with cities in tax-rebate programs to spur new home construction.
Last year, Wichita offered five-year property tax rebates for as many as 1,000 buyers of new homes, an effort to revive a housing industry that has been moribund since the recent recession.
Several other cities followed suit with similar but smaller programs.
However, those programs could provide a rebate on only part of a tax bill, the city’s share of property taxes.
Sedgwick County officials said they were forbidden to participate by state law.
McGinn said her amendment would provide that freedom.
“This is really just to kick-start the building industry,” she said.
“It improves the (tax) valuation of a community.”