SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
Popping the Circuit Breaker, or: Alternative Forms of Energy
Okay, so we’ve concluded that, because low to middle-income homeowners generally get exemptions that keep them from hitting the 2% limit, the Property Tax Circuit-Breaker law tends to be a tax break for the wealthy. We’re also established that, once again, the state legislature has passed feel-good legislation that impacts local governments much more than the state.
This is not to say there shouldn’t be property tax relief. Three thousand bucks in taxes is a bunch, even if you can afford a nice home. But the Indiana State Legislature – as usual – acted without thinking ahead. Not only has this plunged many local governments into crisis by the financial markets, but all local entities could be forced to make draconian cuts, far beyond what might come from even the most drastic attempts at savings. The people who wrote this law said they did it to force a debate on property taxes.Okay, fine – now what?
These are the people who hemmed and hawed for decades, ignoring the reassessment issue until they were forced by the courts to face it, and now they’re once more leaving the crisis in the hands of others – the crisis they created. Where is their plan? Where are their ideas? Where is any thinking beyond the next election?
Okay, let’s look at possible solutions. The first, of course, is to reverse spending. If you can reduce waste in government enough to make up for this shortfall, the problem’s solved. Unfortunately, there’s not nearly as much waste in schools and local governments as you might think – a lot of them have already been operating on shoestring budgets, so low that the only way they can manage major improvements or replace aging infrastructure is to finance projects. But, thanks to the circuit-breaker law, financing projects is now harder and more expensive. Oops.
You can argue that a school doesn’t need a new swimming pool, or that a town doesn’t
need to build a parking garage. But the simple math of 50 year old buildings with failing roofs, or schools that have more students than their classrooms can hold, or streets that have more holes than Saddam Hussein’s legal team, are hard to deny.
The job of local government is to protect and serve its citizens and provide public education; it’s pretty much as simple as that. The argument comes with what falls under those categories:
Does Albion need a sidewalk replacement program? Yes – if you think a municipality should provide sidewalks. Does a town need all its fire trucks? Not really – half of Churubusco’s trucks could probably handle 90% of its fires, which would result in a substantial saving to the taxpayers. For the other 10% of the fires, you could probably hold damage down to a block or two. Does Huntertown need as much police protection as it has? Depends on whether you’re being targeted by a criminal. Too bad they don’t post their schedules. Also, we could dismantle all our sewer utilities and go back to septic systems.
My point is, there’s not a lot of waste in local governments, except for what I call “necessary waste”, such as legal fees and paperwork that no one thinks we should have to do, but we have to do anyway. The irony of that is that many “unnecessary” costs are mandated by the Indiana state legislature, or the federal government. The term most often used is “unfunded mandates”. Oh, they do have to be paid for – but not by the people who force them on us.
In fact, just as crap goes downhill, smoke goes up; it’s at the state and federal level that waste is generally found. How much luck do you think the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns would have forcing the state government to cut their budget?
What else could we do to cut costs? We could cut levels of government. The primary candidate would be townships, which were formed to solve the problems of access and communication that existed 150 years ago. Most township officials are dedicated and caring people – they have to be, considering there’s no real financial incentive to do that difficult job – but townships are now an outmoded and unnecessary level of government with responsibilities that could be taken over by counties. Not a popular notion, I know, but that doesn’t make it less true.
I don’t know how much money that would save the state – not a lot locally, I suspect, since a large percentage of government expenses comes from paying employees. (There’s also the argument that you could do away with counties, or towns, and keep the townships.)
What else? Well, let’s look at how to make up the money lost in property taxes. There was a time when property taxes seemed reasonable because only the wealthy owned a large amount of property, but that time is long gone. What about a sales tax? Everyone – owners, renters, even illegal immigrants – has to buy stuff, so raising the sales tax a little might make up the cost in a relatively fair and painless way. There’s also the sin tax, which is basically what the new fireworks tax is. Examples would be more on beer to pay for cops, more on gas to pay for roads, or more on cigarettes until people start growing their own tobacco in back yard greenhouses.
I’m not a big fan of excessive sin taxes. They’ll be coming after my Mountain Dew next.
Still, user fees (read: taxes) would be one way to lesson the pressure on both property owners and local governments. Meanwhile, it wouldn’t hurt if towns, counties and schools continue to tighten their belts as much as possibly, to show they’re willing to reason and compromise. Assuming you can find someone in the state legislature who understands the concept.