I just returned from a tremendous waste of time, an effort on my part to save a couple of bucks a year on property taxes. But before I digress, maybe a bit of background is in order...
I live east of a small town (small in the great scheme of things) called Kent, about 20 miles south of Seattle, Washington, both located in King County, in the Northwest corner of the United States of America. Purportedly the world's greatest democracy (certainly not the oldest: that distinction belongs to India. Probably not the best either. I give that award to Canada, although I have my doubts, and I'm SURE that my Canadian friends would disagree, but I digress again..). Like any form of government, democracy requires two things: The will of the people, and the means to pay for it. The national government is funded by means of an income tax. The government inquires as to how much money you make in a year, and then appropriates some of it to pay for the things that governments do. There are mechanisms for deferring, avoiding, and skimping on your taxes, and the scale is graduated, so that those who profit most under the rules of the government wind up paying extra for their success. At my present income level, federal taxes take approximately 18% of my yearly income. This may seem like a lot, but rest assured, there are many progressive governments in the world where the citizens would be most happy to only have to pay 20% of their income in taxes.
In contrast, the government of the state of Washington is funded primarily by means of a state sales tax. Local jurisdictions can tack on their fraction of a percentage point, but the majority of the sales tax goes to the state. At present, I pay 8.3% extra for anything that I buy. Again there are exceptions: There is no sales tax on food, for example. And the place where I buy most of my Magic: the Gathering$ doesn't charge me sales tax, but then they just pay the tax out of the price of the cards. That way, the tax gets paid, but I don't see it as an 8.3% surcharge on my purchases at that particular store... The sales tax is by necessity a "flat tax", something very popular with the Forbes candidacy in the 1996 election. The premise is simple: the more you buy, the more you pay to the state.
The county gets the majority of it's revenue by means of a "property tax". A valuation of your property is made by the county government, and a fraction of that total is "assessed", and is then owed to the county. In 1996, my house and property were valued to be worth a total of $161500.00, with a resultant tax assessment of $2662.68. When the county sends you a report of their evaluation of the worth of your property, they also send you a breakdown of where the money goes, along with the bill.
I really have no idea if this list is comprehensive, excessive, or unrealistic. We ask the government to provide certain services, such as Police, Fire Protection, Road construction and Maintenance, and what not, yet we begrudge the paying of our taxes. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but that's what happens.
Nobody likes paying taxes. We all wish that we would pay less to the government for the things that we want the government to do. For the Feds, the strategy to avoid paying higher taxes is twofold: Make less money, and take advantages of the loopholes created by the government in their effort to encourage certain societal behaviors. Seeing as how nobody wants to make less money, especially for the sake of paying less taxes, this strategy is not often followed. As an example of how the government allows, nay encourages, certain behaviors with the appropriate tax breaks, the Federal government allows you to deduct the interest paid on a loan made for the purpose of buying a home to live in, thus encouraging people to buy houses. Charitable giving is also allowed as a deduction, thus encouraging people to support their favorite charities.
For the state, there seems to be only a single strategy: buy
less stuff. This goes against the grain of such a consumer and
consuming society as ours. Buy less stuff? No way! Living simply
and consuming less is simply not a path that most Americans
would choose voluntarily. Again, I claim my status as an
Outsider to say that I do try to live simply, and that I do try
to consume less stuff than Madison Avenue would be comfortable
County property taxes increase at a rate much faster than any other kind of tax. There are two primary reasons for this. First, The county always seems to need more money than before. Schools cost more. Road maintenance cost more. The cost of Police, Fire Protection, Emergency Medical Services, and more are always going up. At best, these costs should be mirrored by inflation, the rate at which costs go up in relation to a currency that is depreciating. But our property taxes are going up at a rate faster than inflation. We can blame this on the Californians, and many do. This isn't strictly true, but it serves as an example.
Because the taxes you pay are based on the value of your property, any increase in the value of your property, by definition, increases your taxes. You may not be paying any more for your house than before, but because somebody would pay you more for your house than you did when you bought it, you now owe the county government more money.
Time for fact 'o life #1. Everybody's got to live someplace. Some people choose to live on the street, sleeping over steam vents to keep warm, for any of a number of reasons. This doesn't change the fact that they have corporeal bodies that exist at a distinct set of coordinates in the space-time continuum. Those of us who choose not to live on the streets (or in their cars) usually live in some sort of building, such as a house or an apartment. Apartment dwellers are not billed directly for their property taxes. However, the OWNERS of those apartments are billed for property taxes, and they are not inclined to pay these out of their deep abiding charity. They simply pass on the cost of the taxes onto their tenants. The dwellers may never see the tax bill, but believe me, they are paying them! In contrast, home owners get the bill in the mail. It's got their name on it. They have to write the check. It's very real and personal.
Fact 'o life #2. There are more people here today than there were yesterday. All of you breeders out there (and I use the term literally, and not as a term meaning "not gay") are busily filling up the planet with your offspring. I can't hardly blame you. Millions of years of evolutionary programming have hard wired the desire to procreate in order to perpetuate the species. Nothing I can say here is going to keep you from doing so. (Nevertheless, I can try. Don't do it!) Your children have to live somewhere, and their children are going to have to live somewhere, and so on. Population growth is an exponential curve, and there will always be more people than affordable places to stay. No number of housing projects built will ever change that. Thus, there will always be exponential pressure on property values and by extension, property taxes.
If I were to meet you on the street, pull out a gun and demand your money, you would be (justifiably) upset. When the government demands that you give them money (with plenty of threat to back them up), the natural inclination is to also get quite upset. This morning I attended a meeting with State Senator Pam Roach, republican from Auburn, Washington. (A smaller town, located south of Kent) She's not my state senator, but she was there representing the equally conservative County Council Representative Kent Pullen, who does represent my district. Ostensibly, the purpose of the meeting was to discuss methods by which increases in property values could be appealed to the branch of county government responsible for determining these values. I expected to hear about steps in the appeal process. Instead I got an earful (and a bellyful) of what is referred to as "Populist rhetoric". I bailed out of the meeting sometime between the formation of the militia and the distribution of the ammunition. There were a lot of references by the people on "those politicians" at the state level who were making decisions based on something other than the wishes of the people. As Senator Roach started talking about how "we", now meaning the fiscally conservative (if not morally bankrupt) faction of the Republican party were there fighting for people like those in the room. An interesting crowd indeed. Nothing like a room full of crotchety old farts to reinvigorate my youthful liberalism. There was great sentiment for a moratorium on, if not outright elimination of, taxes on a) the elderly, and b) those making as much money (if not just slightly more) than the speaker of the moment. Sure, property taxes hurt those on fixed incomes quite a bit. There was no more money coming in, yet each year the "gov'vmt" was showing up on the street corner, gun in hand, demanding payment. I'm reminded of the phrase:
Don't tax you, Don't tax me, Let's tax that fellow behind the tree...
The deal is that the cost of government is, if not fixed, then at least a certain amount. If we were to institute a law exempting people with blue eyes from having to pay taxes of any sort, then it would be nice indeed to have blue eyes. However, everyone else would see their share of taxes raise by the EXACT SAME AMOUNT as that saved by this new special interest group. These old codgers wanted to shift the burden from them to me. I was there to find out how to appeal my property tax increase, not to lead an armed revolt against my government.
OK, the government does spend money like it comes from somebody else. And "they" have been known to spend money on things that I wouldn't spend money on (anyone care to chip in for a new football or baseball stadium to further subsidize their millionaire owners?). But robbing Peter to pay Paul Allen is only moving around the slices of pie, not reducing the size of the pie. I'm guilty too. If I am successful in reducing the valuation of my property, then I will be paying less money than I might in taxes, and if the county government needs that money, then they will increase their "request" from all taxpayers to make up the difference.
Senator Roach made an interesting comment. I paraphrase to say that as a Senator, she discovered that big big savings in taxes resulted in little to no savings on the tax burden of the common citizens. Her example was the cutting of budgets of $300 million dollars at the state level. Sounds impressive? According to Senator Roach, the net result (per taxpayer, I assume) would be a savings of $25. As an example, we could eliminate all libraries from the state for a year. Is the library worth $25 to you a year? So we cut somewhere else. If we stopped spending money on salmon, on trees, on conservation, on poor children, and so on. We could all save a cumulative "bunch" by eliminating these programs, but the net savings to you might be rather small. We all have to decide if the savings of the cost of an evening out is a price worth paying for the elimination of a number of programs which you may or may not support, but nevertheless are to be supported by a civil and moral citizenry.
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This document was placed here on Dec 10, 1996, and has been viewed countless times.