Attempt to thaw tax freeze goes down in flames

The attempt to thaw the property tax assessment freeze at the ballot box failed by a margin of about 60 percent to 40 percent Tuesday, according to unofficial results.

With all 26 precincts and the early vote counted, No votes totaled 31,966 while Yes votes totaled 20,910, again, in unofficial numbers.

Charmain Crabb, co-chair of the Keep the Freeze campaign, called the results “humbling.”

“We worked really, really hard. Our volunteers were absolutely incredible,” Crabb said. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so we just worked them to the bone, and it paid off.”

Crabb said the campaign was hoping for a wide margin of victory, but they didn’t know what to expect.

“This is my first campaign, so I didn’t know what to expect,” Crabb said. “But we’re very happy with those results. I think the people were challenged to educate themselves by many sources and when they did, they understood the ramifications and chose wisely.”

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson has championed the effort to thaw the freeze since her election in 2010.

“It came down to a debate over whether we’re going to stay the Columbus of the past or move into the future,” she said.

Tomlinson called the referendum a “tremendous effort to update our tax system and to bring our community into a competitive future.”

“This debate educated so many to the negative impacts of the freeze and opened many eyes to better alternatives,” she said. “The conversation will no doubt continue as our community changes with time. The Thaw team — Tyler (Townsend), Cedric (Hill), (co-chairs) and so many others — are grateful to have had the support we did.”

If the referendum had passed, it would have kept the freeze in place for all who are currently under it, but would have put any homestead property bought after Jan. 1, 2017, under a more traditional fair market value system, where property is regularly reassessed. Those properties under the freeze would have remained so until they changed hands, whether by sale or probate. They would have then go into the fair market value system. Eventually, all frozen property would have changed hands and no property would have remained under the freeze.

The property tax assessment freeze was voted into effect in 1982. It freezes the assessed value of a homestead property at the value at the time of the sale and keeps it there until the property changes hands. It is then reassessed at the current value and again frozen at that value.

It has been challenged before, at the polls and in the courts, and the challenges failed both times.

Voters initially approved the freeze by a 73 percent to 27 percent margin in 1982. A 1991 attempt to repeal the freeze by referendum failed by an 81 percent to 19 percent margin.

In the early 2000s, a group challenged the freeze’s constitutionality and won a favorable ruling at the Superior Court level. But the state and then federal Supreme Courts ruled it constitutional.

Supporters and opponents of the referendum to thaw the freeze have disagreed on whether the new law would be constitutional and what would happen if it were tossed out by the courts. Supporters said the city would just revert to the tax freeze. Opponents said the freeze would have been repealed, so all homestead property would go into the fair market system, instantly lifting the freeze completely.

They have also disagreed about the potential impact on the city’s second Local Option Sales Tax, the OLOST. Opponents said that because the initial legislation allowing the OLOST referendum had the freeze as an enabling requirement, if the freeze went away, so would the OLOST and its $30 million in revenue annually. Supporters said that is not the case, because the freeze would remain on the books forever, even though eventually no property in the county would qualify to be under it.