Carol Oldenburg, one of York City's best-known artists, would love to paint in a studio downtown.
But she simply can't afford the rent. Since buying a "modest" home on South Pine Street 14 years ago, Oldenburg said her discretionary income has all but evaporated. Her property-tax bill is higher than her mortgage.
"I knew there were taxes. I didn't think that they would be escalating every year," Oldenburg said.
When it comes to property taxes, the gap between York City and its suburban neighbors just keeps getting bigger.
The owner of a $150,000 house in the city will pay more than $8,700 in property taxes this year.
Compare that to the tax bill of a homeowner in York Haven, the York County municipality with the second-highest cumulative property-tax rate. There, the owner of a $150,000 house will pay less than $4,900 in taxes to the school district, borough and county this year.
"Not only did the taxes go up, but the number of people who want to buy in the city goes down. So the value of
my house has fallen because of the taxes going up," Oldenburg said. "When I first moved here, you never saw a for-sale sign in Springdale -- ever. Now you probably see four on a street."
Escalating: Mary Homsher tells a similar story. She and her husband moved to York City in 2000, knowing they'd pay more in taxes than if they lived in the suburbs.
That first year, they paid a total of about $2,800 in property taxes to the city, the school district and the county.
But the city's school and municipal tax rates have skyrocketed in the past decade. Today, owning their home on West Market Street will cost the Homshers closer to $8,000 in property taxes.
"I think that's a lot for 10 years," Homsher, 52, said. "If something would happen to my husband, I couldn't afford that. I'd have to move."
Realtors say the city's high tax burden amounts to a big turnoff for potential home buyers -- even with the median price of a York City home hovering at just $35,000 for the first seven months of 2012.
City home sales have dropped 31 percent since last year.
"I'm still real worried about York City," said John LeCates, president of the Realtors Association of York & Adams Counties. "You can buy a minivan for what a house in the city costs."
Low prices and high taxes are turning the city into a "renter's haven," LeCates said.
And that's a problem because the "investors" who buy property to rent it out do not always maintain property as well as a homeowner, he said.
"People don't care for their houses like they would if they actually (lived in) them," LeCates said. "That's something that the city needs to shy away from."
The association has agents trained in urban sales, but both the city's 17 percent tax hike and York City School District's 8.5 percent tax increase in 2012 continue to be turnoffs for buyers, he said.
But lower prices: However, some of the city's tax burden is offset by the lower assessments of its properties, said Russ Bardolf of Rock Commercial Real Estate.
For example, identical properties might be worth $200,000 in Springettsbury Township and $150,000 in the city, he said.
"When you do the tax implication of both, it could be almost the same," Bardolf said. "Clearly, the real-estate tax liability in the city is higher than other places, other municipalities. But that doesn't mean that equivalent properties are taxed at higher rates than suburban properties."
But, Homsher said, there's a vicious cycle at play when it comes to property values.
Owners who take care of their properties end up paying more in property taxes, while those who allow properties to fall into disrepair get a break, she said.
"The more you try to fix up your house and the more your neighborhood tries to fix up their block, the more you get hammered," she said.
City homeowners do qualify for some help from the Homestead & Farmstead Exclusion program, which can translate to a tax reduction of as much as $490 in York City. Property owners are eligible for the homestead exclusion if their property is their primary place of residence.
At 20.37 mills, York City's municipal tax rate is more than three times higher than the rate of the runner-up, West York.
Out of 72 municipalities in York County, only York City and five others have a tax rate of four or more mills.
At 33.73 mills, the city school district's tax rate is most closely trailed by the Northeastern School District, which has a tax rate of 24.26 mills.
It's worth noting that, unlike all other county school districts, the boundaries of the city school district are wholly within the city. No other municipality is affected by the school district's tax rate.
Add the county tax rate of 4.15 mills, and York City residents pay 58.25 mills in local taxes -- by far the highest tax rate in York County.
Economic devel opment: Property taxes can deter economic development, said Frank Jacovini, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors. Companies simply won't move into an area where the taxes are high, he said.
The association has had property taxes on its radar for years but recently made them a "legislative priority" to study and form opinions on property-tax reforms proposed by some state legislators, Jacovini said.
"Property taxes, they do stymie home sales. In some areas, taxes are so high that seniors and others on fixed incomes are ... forced to move," he said. "There's a lot of solutions that are being considered, but the situation is really complex. It needs more than just a simple tweak."
-- Erin James may also be reached at ejame firstname.lastname@example.org.