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Sonoma County homeowners warned that property taxes may increase

Sonoma County residents who saw their home plunge in value now may face what a top county official calls a "mixed blessing" — the return of higher property values, which can lead to bigger tax bills.

About half of the county's homeowners might see their property taxes rise this fall by more than the 2 percent annual limit set by Proposition 13, Sonoma County Assessor Bill Rousseau warned Monday.

Those owners previously saw their property tax bills drop when home values fell sharply after the housing bubble burst in late 2007.

Now, home prices are rising again, and the Assessor's Office plans to post new values for each property in the county in August. At that point, it will report how much a homeowner's property tax bill will change. But Rousseau already is warning homeowners to brace for higher taxes when the county sends out tax bills in October.

"We want to see people get prepared for that," he said.

In the past five years the county has reduced the assessed value of properties by a total of nearly $10 billion. That resulted in a cumulative drop of almost $100 million in collected property taxes.

More than 55,000 property owners — about half of the homeowners in Sonoma County — had their assessed values and property taxes temporarily reduced during that period.

If those owners' home values now have increased, "there's a high probability that their property taxes will rise as well," Rousseau said.

The county's median home price hit a record high of $619,000 in August 2005, then fell 51 percent to $305,000 in February 2009. By this April, the median had climbed back 43 percent to $435,500.

Rousseau wouldn't characterize how much property assessments will increase, which are based on the properties' fair market value as of Jan. 1 each year.

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