Government

ECONOMIC ANALYSIS: King for a day on fixing the property-tax system

January 2, 2006

Well, I've finally been caught. Despite my best efforts to appear decisive and get straight to the point, one of my readers accused me of being just another equivocating, twoarmed economist in a recent column I wrote on taxes. You know the type. On the one hand this, and on the other hand that, never sticking their necks out and reaching a conclusion.

That person will be back in this space this week, doing his best to pretend not to be what he really is-a person who sees two sides to every question. This week the monster is out of the cage, with an opinion and an instruction for everyone and everything.

So let's go back to taxes. The so-called reform of Indiana's property tax three years ago was all sizzle and no steak. As a recent Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute study makes abundantly clear, market-value assessment is not happening. With 1,100 assessment officials and no consistent reporting or accountability across townships and counties, are we really surprised?

Some say we should tinker some more, shifting a few more items away from the property-tax levy and calling it reform. That's a mistake. Local government can, and should be, the most effective and responsive government there is. That can't happen when it's financed from Indianapolis.

So let's really reform the property tax by overhauling the entire system. There should be one assessor per county, whose record-keeping and decision rules would conform to state standards. And the accuracy of the data they rely on, such as sales disclosure forms, should be enforced by penalty of law.

And speaking of data, how much longer do you think Indiana can go into the future with record-keeping systems that recall the image of Charles Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge character, stooped over a desk with quill pen in hand? In the IFPI study mentioned above, five Indiana counties were simply unable, in two years, to provide data to enable an evaluation of their assessment methods.

But back to taxes. Some of us fear a more efficient, accountable property-tax system, with good reason. What we have today has plenty of warts. But some of those can be fixed.

The exemption of property owned by not-for-profits should be revoked. But I wouldn't stop there. The exemption of government property should be lifted as well. Situations like Beech Grove, where the mayor is at best ambivalent, and at worst antagonistic, to the presence of the large Amtrak maintenance facility that employs hundreds, yet pays no property tax, are absurd. And taxing church property, much like taxing church payrolls, is a far cry from state establishment of a religion.

Now that idea has dollars flying in all directions. Clearly tax rates, and intergovernmental transfers of other kinds, would have to adjust downward. We are not trying to create a windfall of revenue for local government. Just fix an unbalanced situation that's getting worse.

Tax relief to indigent homeowners, another rough edge of our current system, can be more efficiently accomplished with "circuit-breaker" provisions, which are tied explicitly to household income, than with homestead exemptions, which are not.

But my favorite idea for property taxes deals with the assessment process itself. After all, what most of us loathe about the property tax is its complexity and unfairness. That's why we should get rid of all assessors and make up our own assessments for our homes and property.

That's right, fill in your own number. But there's a catch. If someone offers you that amount, you have to sell. Could it work? It's fun to think about.



Barkey is an economist and director of economic and policy study at the College of Business, Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached by e-mail at pbarkey@ibj.com.
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