Editorials

Responsive government, fairer taxes

Brookmonte Lane in southern Fayette County is one area lined with large houses on 10-acre lots that previously qualified for the farmland-preservation tax break.
Brookmonte Lane in southern Fayette County is one area lined with large houses on 10-acre lots that previously qualified for the farmland-preservation tax break. File photo

David O’Neill struck a welcome blow for both fairness and efficiency in government this week.

O’Neill, Fayette County’s property valuation administrator, announced changes his office is making to assure that tax breaks for farmers go only to, well, people who actually farm their land.

A Herald-Leader investigation last year found that state property tax breaks intended to help farmers and preserve farmland were in many cases simply providing subsidies to people with large homes surrounded by acres of manicured lawns. Reporters Linda Blackford and John Cheves identified 841 parcels of 10- to 11-acres in the county that got the tax break on land valued at a total of $183 million. They figured the undervaluation could be costing Fayette County Public Schools, which rely heavily on property tax collections, as much as $1.4 million each year.

The principal change O’Neill is making is to require people who bought what is taxed as farmland after Jan. 1, 2013 (a “retired farmer” provision in the legislation prohibits removing the exemption from landowners who’ve had it for five or more years) to file an application stating what portion of their land is used in agriculture and how it’s farmed in order to receive the exemption. Those who don’t file will lose the exemption.

O’Neill’s changes affect only Fayette County but a legislative study last year found that the tax break costs about $44.7 million each year. Most PVAs require no verification the land is farmed and they have little guidance from the state in how to define agricultural use.

Legislators showed little interest at a December meeting in better defining agricultural activity, which would help close this loophole but protect active farmers.

Anyone interested in fair taxation and efficient government should ask their state legislators to take another look and, like O’Neill, take action.

In Kentucky, the agricultural exemption in property taxes is given to anyone with 10 acres or more, whether they farm the land or not.

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