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NOTIONS: A property tax sigh of relief and a reform wish list

July 23, 2007

The nightstand clock reads 5:17. Too early to wake up. But hey, I've been tossing and turning for hours, so why lie here any longer, pretending?

The cause for this night's insomnia is money. Money for two kids starting college. Money to replace the

Money to paint the house. Money for employees' salaries. Money for employees' parking. Money for employees' retirement. Money for employees' health insurance. Money for their families' health insurance. Money to get the yellow highway paint off the car. Money to put gas in the cars. Money for diabetes supplies. Money for memorials to friends who've passed. Money for brides, grooms and graduates who've just begun. Money for causes to save people from themselves. Money for charities to help those who have no money. And, yes, money for taxes.

The phone rings in my office. It's a professional acquaintance peddling tables for a multiple sclerosis event. He wants money.

The snail mail arrives. The Arts Council of Indianapolis wants money for a kickoff lunch. The symphony wants money for a kickoff concert. Save the Children wants money for a needy child. Indiana University wants money for not-as-needy children. Purdue wants money for athletic-program ads. The Kelley School of Business wants money for an etiquette dinner.

The bills arrive. The electric company wants money. The gas company wants money. The water company wants money. The phone company wants money. The cable company wants money. The credit card company wants money. The doctor wants money.

The e-mail arrives. The bursars at my sons' colleges want money.

United Way calls. May they stop by to make an appeal at an upcoming staff meeting? (They want money.)

A few weeks ago, before walking home from work, I e-mailed one of my neighbors. Knowing we were due for some bad fiscal news, I asked if she'd received her property tax bill in the afternoon mail. Her reply, "It'll take your breath away."

So I approached the mailbox with trepidation.

My neighbor was right: $7,000 last year; $14,000 this year. It's the stuff that screams are made of.

But a few days later, after considerable anxiety, public outcry and political fingerpointing, Gov. Mitch Daniels granted us a pardon: a bipartisan government reform commission, a reassessment in Marion County and-to stem the tide-tax bills frozen at last year's level.

I'll pay that piper, of course, just as I would have paid its inflated cousin. Not just because it's required, but also because I believe philosophically in collective support of those services vital to a healthy society and economy: public safety, a clean environment, safe streets and highways, parks, education, health care for the poor, economic development to attract good jobs and cultural enhancements to attract good people to fill them.

I'll also take delight in knowing that every dollar I pay in local real estate taxes will be deducted from the adjusted gross income on my federal return. I'd much rather fund valuable services in Indianapolis than a failed war in Iraq.

But as the government reform commission gets started, I hope they and our legislators will finally address the many factors that triggered this anxiety.

Instead of catering to the unrealistic "nonew-taxes" mantra, I hope they'll incorporate incremental increases that account for increases in service costs and property values. If we make minor adjustments along the way, we won't ever again be slammed with a shocking-and-awful, make-up-for-pastcowardice increase.

I hope they'll find a phased-in solution to nonsensical assessments that have allowed the owners of older-but-pricier homes to duck their fair share of the tax burden for ages.

I hope business reassessments will be concurrent with residential reassessments, so we can avoid the hurtful us vs. them dispute between homeowners and job-creators.

I hope they'll stop dumping child-welfare costs onto city taxpayers and return them to state government where they belong.

I hope they'll find a way to share the cost of urban amenities with the flee-tothe-suburbs crowd that loves to call our city home, while avoiding any responsibility to pay for it.

I hope they'll find a way to hold accountable the failing school system that uses 50 percent of our tax dollars to deliver a high dropout rate while resisting alternative approaches that might prove more effective.

I hope they'll convince the Legislature to finally enact Mayor Bart Peterson's proposal to consolidate outdated, unnecessary and unaccountable layers of government.

And finally, I hope "we the people" will learn from this fiasco to pay more attention to government and participate more in the process.

After all, some of the elected officials who've lost the most sleep over this-and taken the most heat-are the very leaders who tried to prevent this mess, only to find their worthy proposals mired in a political nightmare.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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