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Council President Christopher Keefe – Sinking in Bismark

It seemed too good to be true:  a chance to eliminate the property tax?  Not just reduce them, or legislate a cap like California and Massachusetts, but actually remove them permanently as a matter of policy?  But that’s precisely the opportunity the voters in Bismarck and throughout the state of North Dakota faced on Tuesday:  the chance to eliminate the local property tax and replace it with the surplus oil and gas revenues in which the state of North Dakota currently finds itself awash.
It was an historic opportunity, as a vote in favor would have made North Dakota the first state to abolish the local property tax and the only state in the nation not to levy one in any of its 2100 municipalities.  Every other state in the nation permits local counties or cities and towns to levy local taxes based upon either the value or the purchase price of each individual property.   The Rough Rider state has a property tax system very similar to ours in Massachusetts, in which individual parcels are assessed at their current market value and then taxed at a uniform “mill rate” which is based upon the overall amount of revenue needed to balance the annual local budget.
Ultimately, the voters decided by a margin of better than 3 to 1 to keep the local property tax, although follow up measures are in the works for property tax relief.  So why did North Dakotans, despite temptation, elect to keep the local property tax?  Of course, it would be presumptuous to assume we knew the motives of all 127,320 voters who cast ballots against the measure on Tuesday, but many of the quotes surrounding this news story revolved around the theme of local control.  Elimination of the local property tax would have meant local towns would have been dependent on a state legislature that meets for 80 days every two years for the overwhelming majority of its budgetary funding.  Need a new squad car?  Roof leaking at the schoolhouse?  Call us next month.  Your bridge was washed out by the Red River flood?  Better luck next year.
Of course, you don’t have to travel far to experience how state control might look and feel.  Our $60 million bridge project was under state supervision and was completed using state contractors.  Despite legitimate complaints lodged by local residents about signal lights, traffic patterns, and the overall pace, we in local government were reduced to the role of interested spectators, since the state was footing the bill.  The state also controls the Drug Store Hill Bridge, and the glacial pace for its replacement is reflective of an institution that is insulated from its constituents.As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes reminds us, taxes are the price we pay for civilized society.  Of course, no one wants to overpay, even for a little civilization!  The local property tax funds police, fire, public works, and education, both in North Dakota and here in Massachusetts.  It allows local people to have the most direct access to elected representatives in possession of their money and petition them for the redress of grievances, or worn out streets surfaces, as the case may be.  It gives those contributing the public charge the greatest opportunity to influence how their tax dollars are spent and it allows for the greatest level of scrutiny of the results.
When I coached softball a few years ago, we were so short on playing field space that I literally held my first practice in the High School parking lot.  About the same time, the city had an opportunity to purchase the vacant field just north of the High School for extra athletic fields, and I pushed hard to ensure the deal was consummated.  With some help from the Community Preservation funds generated by the surcharge levied on your tax bill, we were able to close the deal and will open the fields for public use next year.   If we had had to rely on the state for the funding and development of the field instead, I’m afraid the money would have never made it past Route 128.
It’s budget season, and the Council is reviewing the Mayor’s budget for FY 2013.  Of the approximately $116 million dollars to be spent on schools, police, fire, parks, public works, veterans, the health department, and administration, about half of that will be directly funded by our local property taxes.  I was going to write that no one likes taxes, but in my brief time as an elected official I have actually had a few residents come forward and ask for higher taxes.  A very few to be sure, but they were upfront about their preferences and knew they were the exceptions to the rule.  But one of them made a valid argument:  given a choice on sending money to Westfield, Boston, or Washington, it was always preferable to keep the money local.  Over 100,000 voters in North Dakota would agree….
Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not the staff, editor, or publisher of the Westfield News.

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