In song, this is called “the most wonderful time of the year,” but homeowners might disagree, at least a little, as they open their property tax bills.
Complaining about property taxes is as American as apple pie, especially in Wisconsin, because our property taxes are higher on average than many other states. But we aren’t the “tax hell” some critics claim, at least according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation. In a report earlier this year, the group found that in fiscal year 2016 (it apparently takes a while to gather all the information), Wisconsin ranked 20th nationally, with state and local tax collections totaling $4,782 per person.
Pinning down an accurate ranking is next to impossible because of differences in how states collect revenue (taxes vs. fees), and what services they provide. For example, some communities still have municipal trash pickup, as opposed to other places, such as Eau Claire, where the private sector does the job.
There are other factors as well. Wisconsin communities spend big money on snow removal but nothing on hurricane preparedness and mitigation, while Florida and other coastal states face the opposite situation.
Defining “fair taxation” is very elusive, but it’s always a hot-button issue because nobody likes paying the government any more than they have to. It doesn’t take much to stir the masses if they think government is bloated, and such anger can cause lawmakers to make decisions to benefit their short-term reputations (and jobs) at the expense of long-term fiscal responsibility.
Consider the recent case of Amelia, Ohio, population 5,000. Its residents recently voted to disband the 119-year-old village rather than accept a 1 percent local income tax, according to a report in the Nov. 27 New York Times. As a result, residents who live on one side of Amelia’s Main Street now belong to one township, and those on the other side belong to another. The village’s seven police officers and a handful of other village workers are out of a job.
Then there’s Chicago, where political self-interest has long been the driving force of budgeting. The result is a combined city and state debt load of more than $88,000 per taxpayer, according to a report by rate.com published in the Nov. 30 Leader-Telegram.
The report noted that such colossal debt can make potential homebuyers skittish about locating in Chicago, knowing that paying it off could result in skyrocketing taxes or vast reductions in services somewhere down the road.
Or, as the rate.com story noted, “When you buy a home, you’re buying into more than just your own property. You’re investing in the community. It’s important to know what you’re getting into.”
That, in a nutshell, is the essence of self-government: weighing what we think we want and need against our ability to cover the cost.
It’s not an easy job. It requires not being overly swayed by emotion when people go to the school board or city council asking for new spending because someone cries out that “it’s for the children.”
At the same time, it’s important to realize that as times change, many highly trained individuals and the companies that employ them want “government” to invest in more than good schools, safe neighborhoods, plowed roads, clean water and reliable waste removal. They want parks, trails, and public support for arts, culture and recreation.
The flip side is that communities that don’t support such things risk falling behind in their efforts to grow and convince the next generation to stick around.
The folks of Amelia, Ohio, may not care if their village stays or goes because it is close to Cincinnati and its cosmopolitan offerings. But Eau Claire and other Chippewa Valley communities don’t have that option. If we want to grow and thrive, a low tax rate alone won’t get the job done.
A few things about the property tax bill. I noticed my “lottery and gaming credit” was about $163. I guess that means if I spent (lost) less than $163 on the lottery this year, it was a good deal.
Also, it is noted that the half-percent Eau Claire County sales tax reduced my property tax bill by about $246. As a homeowner, I like the idea that visitors to Eau Claire County help pay for county services through their purchases. But even with that sales tax help, my county property taxes rose 4.2 percent, plus another $60 in county wheel taxes for two cars.
Unlimited requests for limited resources to fund our government never ends. It’s a tough job for citizens to keep track of it all, but in a self-governing society, it’s one of our most important responsibilities. Simply watching how the bottom line of our property tax bills changes from year to year is a good place to start, but to really be an informed citizen, you have to dig deeper and pay attention throughout the year. Reading this newspaper regularly will help.
Huebscher, a contributing columnist and former Leader-Telegram editor, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.