When Going Up Means Going Down: How Do the Property Tax Circuit Breakers Actually Work?

19 Apr
Monroe County Courthouse at Night

Monroe County Courthouse at Night

During the discussions about the City of Bloomington’s proposed annexation, I have received a lot of questions from readers about the property tax circuit breakers (“tax caps”) — like, how do they actually work, how do they affect the taxpayer, and how do they affect the local unit of government? I thought I’d answer that question first by going through a very simple (artificially simple) example.

Before I even begin with the details, let me emphasize the most mind-bending aspect of the property tax circuit breakers — an increase in property tax rates can actually make the revenue to units of government serving the property go down. How does that work?

For our example, we have to pick a taxing district. Let’s choose unincorporated Richland Township (i.e, the part of Richland Township that is outside the Town of Ellettsville). For 2017, the following table shows the tax rates that make up the overall tax rate for unincorporated Richland Township:

Screenshot 2017-04-19 19.34.56

The overall property tax rate for unincorporated Richland Township for 2017 is $1.7915 per $100 of Assessed Value. The above table shows how that rate is divided up among the various taxing units (units of government) serving that district.

So now we need to pick a property to use as an example — and I’ve picked a very specific property — a homestead with a gross assessed value of $318,600. Why have I chosen this value? Because given the above tax rate ($1.7915) and certain simplifying assumptions (no property tax relief from the income tax), this property is exactly AT its circuit breaker tax cap for Richland Township.

How do we know this? Let’s do a few calculations. First of all, the circuit breaker tax cap for a homestead property is 1% of its gross assessed value. In our example, it is $3186 (1% of $318,600). That means that the taxpayer cannot be made to pay more than $3186 in property taxes. Second of all, let’s calculate the net assessed value that the taxpayer is actually taxed on. Since this property is a homestead, it is eligible for a $45,000 homestead deduction and a 35% supplemental deduction of the remaining value, leaving a taxable net assessed value of $177,840. This means that our $318,600 property will be taxed on $177,840. Note that there may be additional deductions that this taxpayer is eligible for; however, for this example, we’ll stick with the homestead and supplemental deductions.

Applying our tax rate of $1.7915 per $100 of assessed value to our net assessed value of $177,840, we have a total property tax bill of $3186. Note that this tax bill is exactly at its circuit breaker limit of $3186!

Based on the above tax rates, each unit of government that serves this property receives the following property tax revenue:

Screenshot 2017-04-19 20.08.53

And again — this property is right at its 1% circuit breaker limit of $3186, so currently it cannot be forced to pay more than $3186.

So now let’s consider a very artificial situation. Let’s say that for 2018 every taxing unit’s property tax rate stays exactly the same except that Monroe County takes on some additional debt for capital projects, raising its property tax rate from $0.3832 to $0.4300. The following table shows what the 2018 property tax rates are in this hypothetical example compared to the 2017 rates.

Screenshot 2017-04-19 20.19.16

As I mentioned before, in this very artificial example, only the Monroe County property tax rate has changed from 2017 ($1.7915 per $100) to 2018 ($1.8383 per $100).

So first, let’s calculate this taxpayer’s 2018 property taxes overall. The following chart illustrates the taxes that would be collected by each taxing unit from this taxpayer for 2018:

Screenshot 2017-04-19 20.42.54

In 2017 they were $3186. In 2018 they are $3,269.23 ($1.8383 per $100 of AV, with the AV at $177,840). This is an increase $83.23.

But….remember that the circuit breaker is at $3186 — so $3186 is the most this taxpayer will pay! So even though the individual tax rates of each of the units of government serving this property would call for $3269.23 in taxes, the taxpayer only pays $3186. This means that there are $83.23 of taxes that the taxpayer does not pay and that the local units of government do not collect. This $83.23 is known as the circuit breaker credit — good for the taxpayer, not so much for the units of government serving the taxpayer.


But how is this circuit breaker credit divided up among the units of government? Even though it was only Monroe County that raised its tax rate (in this very hypothetical example), all of the units of government share in the loss of revenue in proportion to their tax rates.

So let’s allocate the circuit breaker credit (revenue loss to the units of government) based on each unit’s proportion of the total tax rate:

Screenshot 2017-04-19 21.06.20

Before even looking at the numbers in detail, the following fact should jump right out at you:


Now the last step in the process is to calculate the actual amount collected for each unit in 2018. So let’s put it all together:

Screenshot 2017-04-19 21.20.09

The column labeled “2018 Net (Taxes – Circuit Breaker) represents the actual taxes collected from this taxpayer for 2018. Note that it sums up to $3186. This should not be a surprise, as the tax cap for this taxpayer was $3186 — they cannot be taxed more than $3186 with an assessed value of $318,600!!

But the final kicker comes from looking at the rightmost column, labeled 2017-2018 Change. This is the change in revenue from each taxing unit from 2017 to 2018. Of course the total should be $0 — since the property was at the 1% circuit breaker, no net additional revenue could be collected.

But look more closely at each individual taxing unit. Only the unit that increased taxes — Monroe County in this artificial example — actually increased its revenue from 2017-2018 — and not as much as it would have increased it without the tax caps. But every other unit, even though it did not increase its tax rates — shared in the circuit breaker loss caused by the one unit that did increase its tax rates.

So just to pick out one example — the additional debt taken on by one unit of government (Monroe County) actually caused another unit (such as R-BB School Corporation) to lose revenue.

Monroe County’s gain ($63.76) is actually R-BB School Corporation’s loss ($50.52).

So hopefully this little exercise was useful — hopefully you can now see that with the property tax circuit breakers, one unit that raises its tax rates can actually cause a real loss to the other taxing units.


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