Government and Media & Marketing

EYE ON THE PIE: Property tax problem here to stay

July 30, 2007

"I haven't sung yet," Frances the Fat Lady said.

We were at the Bulging Buffet, which is open 24/7. Frances, one of the state's biggest experts on public finance, had stacked her plate with bacon, sausage, eggs, pancakes and a variety of sweet rolls.

"This property tax debate is not over yet," she said as we took a table. "Despite the fact that only a few counties are really up in arms, there may be enough momentum for something realistic to be done."

"Do you think this General Assembly will do something realistic?" I asked.

"No," she answered, looking up from her quickly emptying plate. "But the public might learn something about property taxes and then demand that the next Legislature and the governor become more realistic."

"I thought that the governor was very realistic about property taxes," I said. "He ordered a freeze on taxes at the 2006 level in Marion County until there could be a comprehensive reassessment. He appointed a bipartisan commission to make recommendations about local government reorganization."

When Frances returned from her second buffet blitz, she said, "The governor claims property taxes pay for local spending and local borrowing. However, the state does not permit localities to function independently. Local powers are restricted and limited by legislation. Their budgets are subject to certification by the state Department of Local Government Finance.

"The Legislature, by itself, created the current property tax crisis in Lake County with the passage of a law that allowed a few major firms to reduce their assessed values. The burden of this highly discriminatory legislation then fell on other property owners in Gary, East Chicago, Whiting and Hammond, as well as on all other taxpayers in Lake County.

"What is happening in Marion and Lake counties is just the most obvious manipulation of the democratic process by state government," Frances said. "Other counties are similarly affected by legislative meddling in local affairs. The determined enemies of local democracy want to put added limits on local spending and make localities even more subject to state control."

"Don't you think that reorganizing local government will save money?" I asked.

"Are you serious?" Frances said. "Where is the evidence that consolidation of schools, fire districts, police agencies, townships and other government units and agencies slows the growth of government spending? And is it spending that should be our concern, or should we ask: Will the quality of services provided be better?"

Frances returned to the buffet for more protein and carbohydrates.

"Reform," she continued, "does not come from changing administrative structures. That's just shuffling the center of power. Reform comes from allowing flexibility and demanding accountability. If we get rid of township assessors, there is no assurance that we get better assessments. We need widespread review of assessment practices and publication of the results.

"Reform comes from electing people to public office who understand the implications of their proposals. For example, people in and out of the Legislature are calling for an end to the property tax. They say there is no relationship of property value to the income of the occupant. So what?

"The property tax should be a tax on property, independent of the income or characteristics of the occupants. If people are consuming too much housing and too much land, relative to their income, then maybe they need to cut back. The media loves the drama of the few cases that bring tears to the eyes. But a realistic approach says, if you can't afford something, don't consume so much of it.

"Certainly, we want to help the poor have access to good housing, but do that through an improved income tax system."

"So, when do you expect to sing?" I asked.

"When it's over," Frances answered, "and that's not going to be until after the 2008 elections, maybe 2010, if then."



Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.
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