Ithaca, a little city in Upstate New York, has done it. Seattle and San Francisco have done it. I hope that more of our local governments will be doing it, because when I started writing about potential catastrophic climate change some 13 years ago, I never thought that we’d go down with barely a fight. Most of us are going to want a record, some proof, that there were indeed lines drawn.
What these municipal governments have done is to adopt policies in support of public divestment in fossil fuels. Ithaca says it will not hold financial investments in the fossil fuels industry and urges New York’s massive pension funds to also divest and redirect our monies into financially safer, biochemically cleaner, socially responsible investments.
Most of the readers who saw it were likely confused. At 9 p.m. on the night of the Patriots’ Day detonations in Boston, Governor Deval Patrick and key law enforcement officials held a widely broadcast media conference. After running through what was going to happen next for the people of Boston, the governor began to take questions from reporters. The first person he called on asked this:
“Is this another false-flag staged attack to take our civil liberties and promote homeland security while sticking their hands down our pants on the streets?”
The first English to plant themselves on Western Long Island brought property taxes with them. The Dutch didn’t leave us much in the way of culture or government, except for some words (cookie!). Medieval English tax systems, they stuck. A little later in the 17th century, colonial New York’s earliest property tax assessment laws actually borrowed language from England’s “Saladin Tythe” of 1188, used to pay for one of the crusades. Some of these concepts survive intact in our property tax system to this day.
Yes, the land taxes that we pay to fund our schools and local governments are pretty much the same taxes that so annoyed Robin Hood and his gang.
There are zombies here. Check your property tax bill. Some of those taxing units are dead districts walking. We can get in front of it and manage it, or sit back and eventually watch bankers and brokers and corporations tear at the carcasses.
In 2011, the last year with finalized figures, government units within Nassau County government units collected $5.85 billion in real property taxes. The biggest chunk of this went to school districts ($4.16 billion), followed by the county ($985 million) and the towns, villages and cities ($702 million). Almost uniquely among New York districts and municipalities, most of the overall revenue stream to the state’s public school system is made up of local property taxes (the county, for example, expects to get only 29 percent of its revenues from property taxes in 2013).
It was 75 years ago this week, on March 25th, 1938, that the first Nassau County real property assessment men started fanning out to record and evaluate every parcel of land and more than 100,000 buildings then standing. The new 1938 county charter eliminated the five town and city assessment systems and replaced them with one county board, with an elected chairman. The first office, located about 300 feet from the front office of these newspapers on Second Street in Mineola, had gone operational only on March 7th, and 55 men hit the streets less than three weeks later.
Assessments were seriously out of whack between and within the towns and cities. For years, local assessors had avoided expensive tax lawsuits and played politics by lowering assessments too much on thousands of properties. This made it more expensive to sell county, town and district bonds. It was important to the new county government’s credit that it be able to present an accurate picture of its considerable taxable assets. Though total reassessment was wildly unpopular at first, it was sold to the public by elected officials as a scientific reform that would restore fairness to a system imploding under the strain of a rapidly changing real estate market.
Five years ago, Chicago parking meters cost 25 cents an hour. The city, desperate for cash, created a “public-private partnership” with Chicago Parking Meters, LLC, a company backed by Morgan Stanley. In exchange for an up-front lump sum of $1.15 billion, Chicago Parking Meters leased 36,000 parking meters for 75 years. Within a year, parking meter rates quadrupled. For 2013, meters cost between $2 an hour and $6.50 an hour, depending on the neighborhood’s proximity to the downtown “Loop” area. The city receives none of those revenues, and it even has to pay the company if a meter is out of service. The $1.2 billion is all gone.
The Chicago deal caused some municipalities to back away from plans to privatize parking, including Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and, in late January, New York City. But other municipalities moved ahead anyway, insisting that their deals would not be another Chicago. So far, it’s a mixed bag. Indianapolis took less money up front and gets a piece of the revenues every year, but the city is still locked into the contract for 50 years, is still liable for broken meters and revenue in the first two years hasn’t met projections. In early March, Cincinnati voted to privatize its meters, claiming the deal would not be another Chicago or Indianapolis. Cincy is locked in for only 30 years. The administration said that if the council didn’t approve the deal, it would lay off 300 police officers and firefighters, and close community centers. These are the kinds of choices with which Americans are left.
To finalize Nassau County’s 2013 real property tax roll, assessment grievances were filed by owners of 30.1 percent of the county’s 369,827 residential properties, more than triple what used to be the typical grievance rate not many years ago. In some neighborhoods, significantly more than half of property owners have been filing grievances in the last few years, many urged on by elected officials and aggressive consulting firms. So that successful grievances don’t add to the county’s crippling refund backlog, last year county officials settled more than three-quarters of all grievances. This unprecedented tax roll churn isn’t a good thing. It speeds the decoupling of values assessed on a property and the actual tax bill.
County Executive Ed Mangano, unable to contain himself, ordered a freeze in assessment raises. I guess that’s supposed to show that he hates tax increases, or something. Unfortunately, there are currently three distinct real estate markets in Nassau County (holding up, not holding up and disaster aftermath) and property values are not moving at the same rates. Gimmicks make imbalances worse and lower the accountability that’s crucial to public confidence in the tax system. We may as well set assessments by lottery or by spinning a wheel, because we’re dropping all pretense that the property tax rolls reflect objective reality, and not merely the act of filing paperwork.
Copyrights and patents are authorized in the U.S. Constitution to encourage creation and invention by ensuring a reasonable period to make a profit. They were not intended to grant a perpetual monopoly on good ideas, whether it’s an important pharmaceutical or software or a better mousetrap.
Out of the darkness and despair that is Washington, D.C., a faith-restoring proposal has been made that shows we may still have the ability, brains and vision to build a real future. It seemed to come out of nowhere. It stunned the large corporations that increasingly narrow the window of ideas to which Americans are exposed, which explains why this is the first many readers have heard about it.
The Federal Communications Commission has proposed the creation of a national “super Wi-Fi” network that can give Americans universal access to one-gigabit-per-second download speeds, 100 times faster than most of us get now. Kaboom.
This is transformative, problem-solving technology.
For many years, the Post Office Department had an 11-pound weight limit, and by law was required to charge uncompetitive rates for small domestic packages. A century ago, it actually cost Long Islanders using the U.S. Post Office less to mail a 10-pound package to China than to New Jersey. For anything above 11 pounds, you had to use one of the private “express” companies. There was little profit in rural service, so if you lived too far out, you paid a whole lot, and probably had to wait a long time. The Wells Fargo wagon brought the band instruments to 1912 River City because that was the only choice.
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Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org