I like to think that I own my house; that is, I do not have a mortgage so I do not need to make payments to a bank. However, my ownership illusion will be crushed should I ever skip my property tax payment. Currently, I get a bill, due and payable, every six months for rather large lump sum. Most property owners in our county just completed this semiannual ritual.
Anything labeled a “tax” generally has negative connotations. A “property tax” implies a fee you pay just for the privilege of owning the property that you already paid sales tax on. Theoretically, property tax revenue is used to fund services that I, as a citizen of the community, use and want. Right now, the money is all sucked up into one bucket, and never-ending behind-the-scene budget negotiations determine where those resources are allocated.
Winners and losers are determined based not on community demand, but rather the political acumen and might of the various government departments.
When taxes are implemented or increased, they usually are marketed with the goal of bolstering a specific service within the community. Last year, several communities in Solano County supported and passed tax increases with the perceived goal of saving valuable services like police and fire. Thus, votes for the tax increase were de facto votes for public safety. In reality, when (or even if) the additional revenue starts trickling in, it goes to the general fund, where the process of political maneuvering will determine who actually benefits from the additional revenue.
Another major flaw with the current property tax model is that it is based on perceived market worth of the property, and not the actual impact of the property upon the services in the community. If a 2,000-square-foot home with two families is “worth” $100,000, and the 1,000-square-foot house next door has one family and a “worth” of $200,000, the smaller house has twice the tax charge, yet arguably has half the service demand of the larger house.
To reframe that concept, what if your cellphone provider based your rates not on the amount of airtime and data you used, but rather the current market value of the hardware you used? If you have a brand new fifth-generation iPhone, you will pay $100 per month, whereas I will pay $40 a month to use my first-generation iPhone . . . even if I use more bandwidth than you. Seems unfair to some degree, doesn’t it?
Additionally, we currently do not have the option of opting out of “services” we do not want. We never really opted in to many of the services; we just a get a bill void of details. If I am unhappy with the service level of the maintenance at my local park, can I cancel my “contract” with the city and look for another provider? Not likely.
Thus, rather than a blanket charge, let us get an itemized bill for the services government provides. The phone company does it; your doctor does it; your mechanic does it. Why not the government? A hundred bucks per month for police and fire? Sure! Fifty bucks per month for parks and recreation? Sounds fair. Sixty dollars a month for roads and sidewalk maintenance? I can live with that. Forty dollars per month for a senior co-assistant vice-director of administrative oversight? No thank you.
Converting to a service fee-based revenue collection model would allow the respective departments to have a clearer picture of their revenue streams, and not waste bandwidth navigating political channels. If they needed increased revenue, they would need to make the case directly to the citizen-consumers, instead of a gantlet of commissions, committees and councils.
As taxpayers (aka consumers of public services), we have no clean and easy way of ensuring that our dollars are going to the services we expect. Having a direct link to government-related revenue generation and expenditures would empower voters with more representation by voting with their dollars.
Brian Thiemer is chairman of the Solano County Libertarian Party. He can be reached at email@example.com.