History of the Property Tax
From the pharaohs of ancient Egypt through the monarchies of Europe and Asia Minor to modern democratic representative governments, taxes on property have been a central form of revenue. The need to identify property and its owners led to the earliest census efforts extending into ancient times. Tax collectors are mentioned often in both the Old and New testaments of the Bible. Whether for a medieval potentate's war-making efforts or a modern state's need to provide public service, property taxes are vital, because they are based on the measure of wealth in the area governed.
What is it Worth
Property taxes are called "ad valorem," from the Latin meaning "from the value," and are different from income taxes, which are based on earnings, and sales taxes, which are based on the cash price of transactions. In order to determine the amount of property tax, the first step is appraise the value of the property to be taxed. In early times, only tangible property, such as land, houses, cattle and even, unfortunately, serfs and slaves, were valued. As civilization progressed, some states began taxing "intangible" property, such as stocks, bonds and bank accounts.
Tax Collectors & Assessors
The people who did this valuation were originally the tax collectors, who set the values and collected the taxes, sometimes right on the spot under threat of bodily harm or death. In more modern societies, the functions are usually split between the appraisal function, also know as the assessment function, hence Assessor, and the calculation and collection functions. Threats of bodily harm and direct seizure have been replaced by tax liens, tax-deeded auctions and other more humane, but no less effective, measures.
Who Decides What You Pay
In modern democratic societies the governed have a say in the type and amount of taxes they pay, either through their elected representatives or through direct means such as initiatives. In California the Constitution says that all property is taxable but in the second half of the 19th century, the legislature exempted intangible property such as bank accounts, stocks and bonds from taxation. Since then, household furnishings, most livestock and business inventory have been removed from the tax rolls.
The property tax system is considered inherently fair, because values are established on market indicators that cannot be influenced by either the owner or the assessor. In California, the assessor is independently elected, since his or her job is to be fair, not to raise revenue.
How Much You Pay
To turn a property value into a property tax, there has to be a tax rate, e.g., $1 of tax per $100 of value. Until 1978, tax rates were set by each jurisdiction, be it a city, county or school district. With the passage of Proposition 13, the tax rate was set at maximum of 1% and values were established as of 1975 with a limited inflation factor, unless there was a change in ownership or new construction, at which time the value could be adjusted to current market levels.