Andrew Wetzel's Musings

October 14, 2017

Property Tax Reduction: The Illusion

Filed under: Uncategorized — awetzel @ 12:50 PM

I think I can safely say the no one likes paying property taxes.  You save to buy a house. typically dependent on some “down payment” (your savings!), go through an often tedious and frustrating process, make 180 to 360 monthly payments, pay property insurance, incur maintenance costs and, hopefully, improve your “castle” to better fit your wants and needs to make it a home.  At some point your monthly payments end and you OWN your very own piece of planet Earth.  Then the tax bill comes.  There are several taxes but let’s focus on the largest one which pays for public education.  Those bills keep coming year after year and they go up and up regardless of whether your house is worth more or not.  Your assessed value may stay the same but the millage goes up to yield the revenue our elected officials say they need to meet their budget.  For years there seemed to be no control over how much they could raise YOUR tax bill but that has changed.  For better or not, we still are TOLD what THEY WANT!

Public education is a right, not a privilege so money has to be raised to pay for everything related to schools and education.  I will not debate specifics regarding salaries, the union or other topics often debated but I will express several underlying concerns.  They include:

  • some municipalities have tax levies that make the monthly tax payment look like a “principle and interest” payment.  This excludes some buyers!  In fact, many buyers are diverted from areas solely because they do not qualify when the school taxes are factored in.  I guess this kind of “steering” is acceptable;
  • properties are “assessed” relative to their local surroundings within their municipality.  There may be vast differences in assessed values for a variety of reasons such as between houses sitting on different sides of a municipal boundary, enhancing a home’s living space  (getting permits to do this may result in a higher assessed value), tax appeals and, frankly, inaccurate assessments (two similar houses may be reported differently in the tax records).  New construction is an anomaly as assessed values are based on a percentage of the selling price while other houses generally carry a stale assessed value.  County-wide reassessments make the system fairer and are generally intended to shuffle the deck without resulting in a tax windfall (if they want a windfall they have to raise the millage);
  • seniors and people on fixed incomes often have difficulty paying property taxes. Many feel that these taxes should be waived at some point;
  • while much has been made of switching some taxes to a “consumption” model, the school tax is not and that seems odd to me in terms of “fairness’.  Take three similarly assessed houses and all will pay the same tax regardless of whether the owners have no children, few children, many children or send their children to private school.  This does not seem fair, does it?

Over the years a number of suggestions have been made regarding how to address this topic since these taxes are the highest.  Some involve shifting how the revenues are distributed so that lower-performing schools can take measures to raise outcomes. Frankly, many do NOT want to see their tax dollars go out of their local communities. Some have suggested that regular reassessments will keep the system more equitable but the practice is expensive.  Another suggestion under consideration lately is eliminating property taxes altogether.  Sound good? The devil is in the details:  the revenue is still needed so another way needs to be employed to offset the lost revenue.  People being people want to know how a new system will affect them.  Will seniors and low-income folks need to be subsidized by younger, more affluent people regardless of who lives in the nicer home?  The devil is always in the details so when you hear about ANY proposal, you need to READ THE DETAILS!  I bet most people will not take the time and that those who do will not fully understand the details.  Have you ever read these resolutions?

Here is a novel idea:  ANY conversation about taxes MUST include some discussion about where the tax dollars are going and how they will be used.  We cannot keep “throwing money at problems” expecting that money solves everything.  It feels good in the short term but resolves little in the long term  At best it is addicting meaning that those receiving it become dependent on others; at worst it is debilitating to those who work hard only to see their income wasted.  Some of the worst performing school districts spend the most per student while many good ones operate more efficiently.  Frankly, perhaps we need to realize that some parents and their children are less devoted to meeting the standards that equate with taking responsibility for their own lives if and when they leave your parent’s home.  Perhaps emphasizing vocational training instead of pushing everyone to think college and expensive student loans a viable option.  There are some social issues that need more than money to be solved and taking more of our money will not serve the problem but will impact the lives of many who could better used THEIR hard-earned tax dollars.

I do not mean to make this an “us against them” argument but we need to stop wasting money that does not solve problems and we need to stop subsidizing bad/ inferior behavior.  As mentioned at the outset, I am ignoring a few topics that need to be better managed if we are to succeed.  Perhaps if property taxes were managed more effectively, some buyers could buy in “better” neighborhoods and that would help neutralize or cure some of our “hamster-wheel” social ills that seem to keep repeating themselves regardless of how much money we spend to make ourselves feel better.

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