A debate that has dominated the American political scene for months has been this premise that everyone should “pay their fair share”. So much attention has been trained on this matter at the national level (in the form of federal income tax) that most people have almost totally ignored the concept at the local level (in the form of property taxes) where it would carry even greater weight.
Think about these disconnects in fairness concerning local taxation:
In comparing properties of equal size, why should a childless couple pay as much as a family of four, when the family of four consumes far more in public services (especially public schooling)?
How is it just that municipalities and schools in Allegany County and the Adirondacks can reap revenues from what are basically absentee landowners living elsewhere (like camp owners) who come to town just a few weekends and weeks a year and acquire almost no benefit from the taxes they’ve paid? Why should those non-resident property owners be excluded from having say in how their taxes are being used in the places where they are paying them?
In rural locales like Niagara County, why should farmers carry the highest portion of the revenue burden just because they happen to own vast tracks of land? It’s not as if they are receiving a proportionate amount of services.
Why should property owners pay so much for Medicaid (in most New York counties it’s at least 50 percent of the county tax) when it should be the obligation of the population as a whole to fund this forced benevolence deemed to be so necessary?
Why should senior citizens on fixed incomes who have been paying into the system their whole adult lives continue to pay high taxes for things they won’t use anymore, but once did and once paid for accordingly through taxation at that time?
Why should someone who loves his home and wants to make it better with a swimming pool or addition have to suffer the consequences at reassessment and end up paying more in taxes than someone who left their land idle?
Beyond those glaring displays of wrong, consider the very act of property taxation itself. You are led to believe – and even possess legal documents that show as much – that you own your property. You really don’t; ownership is only theoretical in modern America. It’s more accurately stated that you are renting the property from your local governments and school districts at a premium, because, if you didn’t pay your taxes it wouldn’t take long for that governing body to take that property from you --- even if the mortgage was fully paid-for!
This travesty carries special meaning in New York State, where property taxes are 70% above the national average. In Niagara County the average home of $95,800 has a property tax of $2,800, meaning that local homeowners pay over $1,200 more than their peers in other states with equally-assessed properties. New York’s cure for the problem was not to cut property taxes, but rather to still allow them to grow, but only at a supposedly-stunted rate (2% tax cap). That’s still a princely sum: After just 5 years of capped increases, the average homeowner will find herself paying $3,091, nearly $300 more than she had.
If you really want to make a change for the better and guarantee that everyone “pays their fair share”, then follow the lead of North Dakota. On June 12th voters there will have the chance to determine whether or not the state will abolish property taxes (Measure #2). If approved, North Dakota would find other means to fund state mandates and local governments, be it through higher income taxes or higher state or local sales taxes, ensuring everyone assumes equal responsibility for the government they want.
It will be interesting to see how that vote pans out. It will help show if the national rhetoric of taxable equality is genuine or just talk. Hopefully fairness does reign, and their property taxes are eliminated. If so, North Dakota would make a great model for the rest of the United States – including New York.
Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column originally ran in the 14 May 2012 Greater Niagara Newspapers