Torches & Pitchforks

A few months after we moved into our new house I got a tax assessment letter from Town Hall declaring that my home had doubled in value. That was good news and bad news. The good news was the new assessment roughly equated to the price I paid for the house. The bad news was my property taxes were going up.

Sitting down with a calculator I plugged the new number into the town’s existing tax rate and almost had a heart attack. The arithmetic showed that I’d be paying thousands more a year. One of the reasons we moved to this town was because the property taxes were low for the area. Now, just as we moved in, the rug was being pulled out from under us. Since I work at City Hall I walked in the tax assessor’s office the next morning and asked what was going on.

“You’re not paying thousands more,” she said, laughing. “We adjust the tax rate downward to reflect the new values. If we didn’t people would be storming city hall with torches and pitchforks.”

“So how much more will I be paying?”

The assessor’s fingers flew over her calculator. “About eight hundred dollars more a year.”

That still sucked but it reasonably sucked. The town hadn’t done a reassessment in a decade and now the tax base was more reflective of market values. Working for a town has shown me the delicate balancing act local elected officials must perform when it comes to taxes. Set them to low and the town withers. Set them too high and the town becomes unaffordable and the politicians are dusting off their resumes.

Cops, schools, snow removal, safe roads and clean water cost a lot of money. Even a small town like mine is a machine with thousands of moving parts that need mammon to lubricate the gears. I am very fortunate to live where I live. There’s no serious crime, the schools are highly rated and we have a vibrant downtown with quaint shops and good restaurants. A recent article said the best leg up you can give to your children is to buy a house in good neighborhood. No wonder there were so many bidders during our realty negotiations. But unlike municipalities with high taxes and poor services I’m seeing a tangible return for my money.

That being said, I’m not stupid. The outfit that did the assessment for the town overestimated the square footage of my house. After a personal visit and some wrangling they knocked 200 feet off the assessment, saving me some money. But I don’t begrudge the taxes I pay. It’s the price I pay for my daughter having a nice place to live. There’s always some people, however, who’ll fight any tax increase with the fury of a ISIS level jihadist.

Many years ago my Dad took me to a Board of Ed meeting in the town where he was a school administrator. The board was having an open meeting to discuss increasing the school tax to pay for new computers. “Listen and learn,” my father said. “You’ll see what idiots people are.” The crowd of citizens who crammed the meeting hall were not in a giving mood.

“I fought in WWII” an old man yelled. “My kids are grown and out of school. Why should I pay more?”

“So you’re not living in a town filled with uneducated hoodlums?” the town lawyer shot back.

“I’m on a fixed income!” another woman cried. “This will ruin me.”

“No increases, ever!” another said. Facing the wrath of a tax averse populace the board shelved the proposal and the kids didn’t get their computers.

I also lived in that very same town and knew that many of the townsfolk wanted everything their city provided but not pay for it. As a result, they voted in politicians who kowtowed to the cheapskates and that led to problems. There was a corruption scandal and suddenly the town didn’t seem like such a nice place to live. Garbage in, garbage out. Being stingy always exacts a price – as the numerous bad tippers I encountered over the years discovered to their peril.

On Memorial Day I was sitting in my back yard watching my daughter play in her wading pool and savoring the scent of family barbeques and freshly mowed grass. Safe and relatively secure, my wife and I are living the American dream. But as I sipped my beer I knew many of my countrymen are feeling that dream has passed them by. The tangible benefits of being an American aren’t being felt by enough people. Taxes and how money is divvied up has something to do with it but let’s face it, things unreasonably suck. Voters aren’t seeing a good return on their investment and they’re pissed. That’s why we’re having such a hoot of a presidential election cycle.

No matter what your political persuasion I think it’s safe to say the torch and pitchfork crowd is on its way. I just hope 2016 doesn’t turn into 1968.

3 thoughts on “Torches & Pitchforks”

  1. Deb says:

    What a lovely analysis! The part I like most is the extremely simple way you have equated stinginess (even a shout-out to bad tipping habits) with the garbage in-garbage out model.
    Love it!

  2. Waiterrant Fan says:

    Steve
    You’re on a roll – two posts in a row! I love it.
    Having had a brief flirtation with local government I can certainly agree that it brings out all sorts of craziness.
    I think the real problem isn’t always that people don’t want to pay anything for their local amenities – its that they don’t trust their local governments to look after tax money as well as the taxpayer thinks they should.
    If that level of trust is ever obtained, things might change.

  3. Wayne says:

    There’s a signature line by someone on Slashdot that says ‘I like paying my taxes: with them I buy civilization.’ Now these days, I’m not so sure how true that holds, but there’s definitely a lot of truth behind it.

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