EYE ON THE PIE: Use property tax to boost investment

September 19, 2005

I walked a little more than two miles recently on the Monon Trail. This probably surprises those who know me. But even the most slothful will, on occasion, rise from the recliner and not go to the refrigerator.

The Monon Trail runs from 10th Street in Indianapolis to 146th Street in Carmel. That's about 20 miles. It follows the route the Monon Railroad abandoned in 1987. It has been identified as a model for other rails-to-trails programs. The trail is heavily used by bicyclists, in-line skaters, joggers, power-walkers and dog-walkers. There are only a few who stroll, unhurried and unashamed.

What makes the Monon so popular is that it is a beautiful corridor through a heavily populated urban area. Many miles of the trail are shaded most of the day by towering trees. These are the most heavily used sections.

Most other former rail lines that have been converted to recreation trails are devoid of natural amenities. They sit out there on open plains, exposed to the blazing sun, unappealing testaments to an indifferent past.

And that brings us around to (surprise!) the property tax. No, you cannot escape a property-tax discussion anywhere in Indiana.

What makes a property valuable? One element is landscaping, and the best landscaping is not a row of petunias on a broad expanse of grass, but a grove of trees. Tree-lined streets are a characteristic of older, gracious, friendly neighborhoods. But today's barren subdivisions will leave no heritage of beauty, no sense of community.

Today's houses are surrounded by grass. If we eliminate the property tax, as some propose, home buyers will be encouraged to own more land, with yet larger lawns. Sprawl will be encouraged.

Grass demands chemicals, water and mowing. Mowing is noisy and requires gasoline. I understand the testosterone surge of a riding mower, but we must ask males with identity doubts to sublimate their insecurity for the sake of the environment.

In place of our existing residential property exemptions, I would give exemptions for wide sidewalks and shade trees. You don't have a sidewalk or shade trees? Then I suggest credits be offered for installing sidewalks and planting hardwood shade trees.

Our suburban areas are virtual wastelands. They are truly sub-urban, below urban. Many developments say they have walking paths, but they are too narrow for two people to walk side-by-side. Two normal people, to say nothing of obese Hoosiers, could not pass each other without one stepping off those narrow paths.

Such developments do not plant shade trees on their streets. Nor do their owners plant shade trees to enhance the quality and value of their properties while reducing air-conditioning costs. I don't know why they don't plant trees. Perhaps they don't understand the value and utility of trees in residential areas. Perhaps they spent too much on too much house, the big-screen TV, the wet bar and the luxury master bath.

Let's get the property tax to work for us by getting rid of the meaningless exemptions and deductions we have today. Instead, let's use the property tax as an instrument to build our communities, to encourage investment and to enhance our environment.

Marcus taught economics 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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