Playing a game
we almost always lose
On shadowy urban street corners, scammers, con artists, flimflam folks, and supposed street magicians call it Find the Queen, Three-card Monte, or an old-fashioned shell game.
Those of us in more bucolic settings have a different name for it: government budget hearings. Instead of a familiar cry of “Play ball!” officials typically start each year’s game by invoking some sort of a plea about mill levies.
With few exceptions, they want us to look at one and only one thing: property tax rates. If those rates don’t increase, or do so only modestly, they can claim they’ve held the line.
It is, of course, a lie, designed to deceive voters who doesn’t have the time or expertise to keep their eye on the ball, pea, shell, face-down queen, or (in this case) total spending of government.
Using the term “mill levy” at this time of year is a pretty good sign the game is afoot — and that taxpayers soon will be footing an even bigger bill even if the supposed mill levy isn’t changing.
The term itself is wrong. No one sets anything related to mills at this. The only things being set now are levies. Levies are the total amount government wants from property taxes. Officials can estimate what mill rate would be needed to generate that amount, but official translation into mills doesn’t happen until much later.
How the patter goes
If you think that’s an esoteric point, think again. Last year, Marion officials loudly and proudly announced no increase in their mill levy. A few months later, after final values on property appraisals were in, the mill rate actually increased because valuation had declined.
City politicians got to look as if they hadn’t increased taxes when, in fact, they had. If anyone caught on, they could blame anonymous bureaucrats or arcane rules — basically, anybody but them.
For several years, local governments have been able to increase taxes without seeming to do so because property values have been rising — not so much on regular property as on such things as utility lines.
This year is a different. Total assessed valuation is poised to decline not just in the Marion but in broad areas of the county. The same levy as last year will result in higher mill rates this year, even if politicians claim now that the tax rate will be the same.
Among the most ludicrous comments we’ve heard was a complaint last week from one bureaucrat that a city needed to increase its mill rate because it hasn’t done so in years and has been losing purchasing power in the process.
The line might work on a shadowy urban street corner, but it shrivels in the light of day. Mill rates are inflation-proof. If prices rise 10%, property values rise 10%, and the same mills generate 10% more revenue. The bureaucrat who uttered nonsense about losing purchasing power either doesn’t understand what he’s been hired to help oversee or is actively deceiving elected officials he was hired to help.
The pea is somewhere else
Countywide, we’re already hearing cries about avoiding an increase in the mill levy, but commissioners already have approved several tax increases that won’t show up there.
Spending on the county’s extension office used to come out of the county’s tax levy. Thanks to the county’s approval of a merger with Dickinson County, that money now will come from a new, separate tax.
Unless the county decreases its rate by 1.733 mills, county taxpayers are going to see a tax increase — including a largely hidden 83.2% increase in extension spending now that it escapes county scrutiny. So much for what was heralded as a move to save money.
Then there are myriad fees both the county and its cities are set to impose. Right now, each residence pays the county $81 a year for solid waste. That’s the equivalent of 8.9 mills on a typical $90,000 home. Next year the fee will increase a whopping 23.5% to the equivalent of 10.1 mills.
Doing this with a fee instead of property taxes makes matters worse.
The owners of a modest $50,000 house and an immodest $500,000 mansion each will pay the same $100 for the county’s new Taj Mahal of waiting rooms for trash — the same transfer station that has been responsible for multiple power disruptions in Marion and that wouldn’t have been needed at all if a handful of refuse refusenicks hadn’t blocked a planned landfill a few years back.
If transfer station costs had been put on property tax rolls instead of becoming a fee, the $50,000 homeowner would be paying $55.55 a year while the $500,000 mansion dweller would be paying $555.50.
Because property taxes impact more than residences, the fee to each actually would be a lot less, but the discrepancy would be the same. Ability to pay always should be a factor in tax decisions. Otherwise, fees become a way to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.
Planned utility fees and surcharges in the Marion and Hillsboro have similar and sometimes greater impacts. They can hurt the less affluent even more because their homes tend to be not as well plumbed, wired, or insulated.
Just because you don’t see fees or sales taxes as clearly as you do property taxes doesn’t mean they don’t impact you just as much — perhaps more.
Who actually benefits?
The cry nowadays is to bemoan the legislature’s property tax lid, which encourages shifting away from taxes assessed on the basis of wealth. Why would legislators do this to the little guy? Just how much do you think little guys contribute to their campaigns, anyway?
Locally, what we’ll be hearing is how we simply cannot afford many things our cities and county need. One thing will be sacred, however: raises for government employees.
Officials will say they must boost morale and retain workers. Yet how many taxpayers who provide these workers’ wages can say they have guaranteed health benefits, superior retirement plans, and separate longevity and cost-of-living raises — plus have never had to face losing their jobs or even temporarily being laid off during a pandemic?
This year more than any other, the government budgeting game needs to be about more than finding new ways to stick it to the little guy while guaranteeing hefty pay and benefit increases for the most protected and pampered workers in our county.
— ERIC MEYER