After three decades living in northwest Omaha's Willow Wood subdivision, Ben Menard is quick to extol his neighborhood's benefits.
“Obviously the location's great. You're well within the city, but close to shopping and entertainment,” Menard said. “It's a quiet neighborhood, relatively crime-free, safe. And with all the parks and common areas, it's really pleasant.”
But Menard, who is on the Willow Wood Neighborhood Association board, realizes that house prices have been taking a beating in recent years. That's a trend that led the Douglas County Assessor's Office to cut valuations this month for more than 700 houses in the subdivision, near 132nd and Blondo Streets.
Willow Wood's valuation cuts are mirrored across Douglas and Sarpy Counties as government appraisers continue to adjust to reduced market values. For the fifth straight year, the counties have reduced more house valuations than they increased.
Notices of the new valuations began going out last week in Douglas County, and the updated numbers are posted on the county assessor's website. Sarpy will mail its changes to taxpayers this week.
The valuation information for both counties also is available now on The World-Herald's website Curbwise.com.
Starting in June, property owners can appeal their valuations to their County Board of Equalization, whether or not the valuations have been increased this year. Thousands of property owners each year file protests, and usually more than half win reductions.
Whether the assessor reduces a valuation of a house or a property owner wins an appeal, lower valuations can mean lower property taxes for homeowners. Tax bills are calculated by multiplying the valuation by the tax rate. If local governments hold tax rates unchanged, the result will be a smaller tax bill for everyone who obtains a valuation cut.
Conversely, people with valuation hikes probably will pay higher property taxes. Newly elected Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert is in that boat after a reappraisal that boosted valuations in her St. Andrews Pointe neighborhood near 120th and Q Streets. Her valuation is going up $34,800 to $427,400 — a smaller increase than most neighborhood residents — and could raise her tax bill about $700.
Besides affecting individual property owners, valuations also may have an impact on local governments. Stagnant or shrinking valuations often put pressure on budgets, forcing spending cuts or leading to higher tax rates.
All told, Douglas County's tax base, including commercial property, farmland and new house construction, is set to rise slightly in 2013, said County Assessor Roger Morrissey, depending on the outcome of Board of Equalization protests. But the gain — about 1 percent — is much less than the gain in the mid-2000s.
In Sarpy, the tax base is expected to increase about 2 percent, which is below the double-digit hikes of past years.
Morrissey said the housing market may be healthier now than it was a few years ago, with new construction and a recent boost in the sales of higher-end houses. But he said there's not enough evidence of a price rebound to justify widespread valuation increases yet.
“My job is to be fair,” Morrissey said. “I call it like the market does.”
Morrissey's reading of real estate prices caused him to leave valuations unchanged for nearly three-quarters of existing single-family houses, according to a World-Herald analysis. Of those with changes, the majority had reductions.
In Sarpy County, nearly all valuations are tweaked each year. As in Douglas County, reductions far outnumbered increases, although valuation cuts tended to be smaller than in Douglas.
For both counties, the state of Nebraska determined that valuations on recently sold homes were about 96 percent of market value — right in the middle of the range allowed by the state.
Some of the largest Sarpy reductions were in established neighborhoods in the Bellevue area. In some places more than 90 percent of homeowners will see valuation cuts.
Similarly, Douglas County reduced valuations in older communities such as Florence, Keystone and Benson — as well as long-standing suburban neighborhoods such as Willow Wood and Millard Highlands.
Not every valuation went down in those areas. For example, Menard's house in Willow Wood went up $5,500, perhaps because he added a deck.
But nine out of 10 of his neighbors are seeing cuts. That includes Kathy Burns, the homeowners association president. Last year she protested her valuation and won a $5,600 reduction. Now the county has cut her valuation an additional $11,000, dropping her to $120,500.
That's a little disconcerting to see, she said, because she paid nearly $136,000 for the house in 2006.
“It's a good thing for my taxes, but that doesn't speak well for the neighborhood,” she said, adding that she hopes the housing market recovers by the time she needs to sell her house.
Burns and Menard said their concern isn't just that houses are bringing lower prices these days. It's that the housing crisis led to more Willow Wood houses being converted into rentals, which tend to be less well-maintained than owner-occupied dwellings.
They estimated that 10 percent of the neighborhood's houses now are in the hands of landlords, making it important for neighborhood leaders to keep alert for code violations and rentals with too many tenants.
Meanwhile, Willow Wood residents complain that their 85 acres of green space, including three parks, doesn't look as good now as it did when the City of Omaha annexed the area in 2008.
“There's no fertilizer, no weed control,” Menard said. “It's been four years, and it looks like hell.”
Menard said he's somewhat resigned to the fact that the city won't provide the same level of care as before the annexation. Everyone knew that the subdivision's 1970s layout, with twisting streets, dead-end circles and vast common areas behind houses represented a maintenance challenge for the city.
But that design is part of the neighborhood's appeal to Menard, because it provides open space and a street maze that discourages drive-through traffic.
“It's difficult to get out of Willow Wood if you don't know how,” he said. “Nobody comes into Willow Wood to take a shortcut.”
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