Hundreds of people will pay property taxes locally this year, but Lake County Assessor/Tax Collector Dave Knowles and Commissioner Brad Winters think the number of people who know how those taxes are spent is likely much lower.
How a Lake County resident’s property taxes are spent depends on where in the County they reside. A portion of property taxes from those who live in certain areas of North Lake, for instance, go to the Park and Rec District and a school district bond — things that people residing elsewhere do not pay into.
Lake County’s billing tax rates are broken into 16 categories, which include, but are not limited to: school district, Education Services District, County general fund, County library, Lake Cemetery District and Rural Fire Protection District.
Every dollar paid in property taxes has been approved by a local taxing district, Knowles explained. No resident pays into all 16 categories, as not all taxes are applicable to every area of the county.
People living in the 7-01 code area of Lakeview have the highest property tax rate in Lake County — approximately $19.06 for every $1,000 assessed — while those residing in Plush have the lowest at approximately $10.49 for every $1,000 assessed.
Residents’ property taxes include levies and bonds, and the two are different, Knowles said. A levy is an ongoing operational budget amount and can be changed; a bond is limited and has an expiration date. For instance, when the Lake District Hospital began expanding, it got a bond to fund its building costs. When the Hospital’s debt is repaid, the bond will expire. Bonds can last for different periods of time. A typical bond lasts for 20 years, Knowles said, but the length can vary from one to the next.
Winters said some people believe that all of their property tax payments go he County’s general fund. However, only approximately $3.76 for every $1,000 assessed goes toward the general fund. Or someone living in the 7-01 code area of Lakeview, about 20% of their property taxes will be paid into the general fund. Property taxes this year are slated to generate just $3.95 million of the County’s total operating budget, which stands at approximately $40 million.
A common misconception, Knowles and Winters said, is that a percentage of people’s property tax dollars go toward maintaining roads in the county; Knowles clarified that none of the County’s property taxes are used for funding any roads.
Roads are funded by state and federal gas taxes as well as driver and motor vehicle fees. The County is not allowed to spend money from its general fund on roads, Winters stressed.
Road maintenance in Lake County can be particularly challenging as the County is responsible 762 miles of road, spread over 8,358 square miles, according to Commissioner/ Road Department Liaison James Williams.
The County Commissioners have been able to help fund roads in some way. Over a five-year period — which ended in 2018 — the Commissioners elected to put some of the County’s Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) funding toward road maintenance. PILTs are federal payments to local governments that help offset losses in property taxes due to the existence of nontaxable federal lands within their boundaries, according to the Department of the Interior.
Winters noted that he previously worked for the Lake County Road Department in the 1990s when there were 35-40 employees; today, there are just 16 permanent workers, with a few extra men who work during the summer and winter performing duties like flagging and plowing snow.
Over many years and through many budget reductions, the Commissioners have worked to keep the best services on the ground for public, Winters said. He added that the Commissioners have had to examine and reduce the County’s road maintenance program for many reasons, including increased prices for oil and gravel.
Changes have also occurred in how the road department’s budget is funded. A lot of money used to come from timber receipts, Winters explained, but as those dropped off, the Secure Rural Schools Act was implemented to provide relief for counties due to reduced natural resources activities on federal lands.
Secure Rural Schools (SRS) funding has also decreased. The County’s first payment from SRS in 2001 was $4 million, Winters reported; the most recent payment was $1.4 million.
Winters said the funding picture seemed to brighten when Oregon’s gas and registration taxes increased. But then COVID hit and people began traveling less, so less money came in.
Lake County — particularly the North Lake area — also has a lot of public ways, which are roads not owned by the County. Ways do not receive any funding from the County because the County only maintains deeded roads — those roads built on land owned by the County.
That creates an added road maintenance challenge for areas like Christmas Valley, which has never been incorporated. Winters said he has long encouraged Christmas Valley to incorporate, and some residents are organizing to do so.
Knowles emphasized that Lake County is the third-largest in Oregon in terms of land area, but one of the least populated, so it receives less road funding from gas and registration taxes.
The County has done well on efficiencies and preservation for roads, Winters said, and has set aside monies in its reserves to prepare for reduced state and federal funding.