Where’s the public debate on taxes?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Why is no public policy debate raging over area municipal tax policy that jacks up the property taxes over vast areas based solely on the inflated sales prices of a very few properties that may have sold over the past year?

Not unlike most Tidewater area property owners, my family was hit with another ridiculous increase in property taxes due to another round of ever-increasing property assessments in Suffolk.

When I appealed the assessment, the Commissioner of Revenue’s office justified the increase based solely on recent sales of a few &uot;comparables&uot; in the area.

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All Tidewater area municipalities use the same logic with the result that city coffers are overrunning in new property tax money based on constantly reassessing properties that are not being sold using the inflated values of a few that did.

Yet, the vast majority of these properties generated no money to pay the extra taxes!

This struck me as both unfair and illogical. However, the fact that this tax tactic is most harsh on the weakest of our citizens-the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and any homeowner on a fixed income-seems to be conveniently ignored by elected and non-elected public officials.

Instead, these &uot;leaders&uot; only see ever-increasing property values and related taxes as a boundless cornucopia of revenue to subsidize ever increasing public spending.

While some officials actually may believe that such spending is &uot;is all for the public good&uot;, the reality is far different.

Many would rightly argue that this public spending is all about maintaining power, expanding political influence and budget turf, and buying votes.

A couple of years ago, Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) made a statement that was picked up in several media columns, &uot;The difference between Congress and drunken sailors is that drunken sailors are spending their own money.&uot;

As a former Navy pilot, I took umbrage to the stereotype of sailors on liberty, but had to acknowledge the validity of the observation while recognizing that this applies to all politicians.

Another conservative writer, David Horowitz, recently stated that the credo of most elected representatives was to &uot;Take as much of the people’s money as politically feasible, and use that money to buy as many of the people’s votes as possible&uot;.

How sad but true!

Why is it that virtually none of our major area TV and print media watchdogs have even recognized the often-racist nature of these policies?

These are the same media and public officials who are invariably in lockstep when it comes to soaking the local citizenry to solve regional transportation and education problems to enable Hampton Roads to attract yet more development and industry to generate greater numbers of customers and cash flow.

As the values of our homes rachet up by double-digit percentage increases year after year, these leaders hope the gullible will only think that their properties have become gold mines!

However, unless a sale takes place, the only miners profiting from these properties are municipalities and politicians.

Those of us who wish to remain in our homes can only pay the added taxes by drawing against current income for those still working, retirement funds and savings-if available-for those who don’t have incomes, or by selling the property and moving elsewhere.

Where is the public outrage?

While Hampton Roads municipalities can justify jacking up assessments to keep pace with real property values, they also need to adjust property tax rates to make the impact of such annual reevaluations &uot;revenue neutral&uot;!

This is the law in other areas (i.e., Currituck County, NC-and I would assume the rest of that state).

Such tax policy continues to increase revenue to municipalities whenever property sales actually take place and this is as it should be.

Here, the money for paying the higher taxes is actually generated from the sales.

However, this would deny municipalities the ability to tax non-revenue generating events simply by declaring that area properties are more valuable this year than they were last year.

Our elected officials are only too eager to line up in front of the TV cameras and print media to lament the lack of affordable housing in the area while, at the same time, they are forcing out those living in such housing today to create the increased property values that will be used to force more out next year.

Soon, the area will look like Monterey, CA where the nearest ugly (read &uot;poor, retired, or disabled&uot;) person lives somewhere far away and in another county.

The time is well overdue for area City Councils to come to grips with regressive and punitive property tax appraisal policies that reap wealth from citizens based on non-taxable or non-money making events that generate no cash flow with which to pay these taxes.

In the meantime, I would urge all area citizens to save every annual tax bill so that your heirs can add those amounts to the cost basis of the properties when area municipalities line up to get more taxes following your demise.

George H. Mears, Cdr USN (Ret.), ME, MBA, lives in Suffolk.