A Success Story of Property Tax Reform
Manuel Perló Cohen, Septiembre 1, 1999

The case of Mexicali, the capital city of the border state of Baja California, Mexico, stands out as a good example of successful property tax reform in the 1990s. In only a few years the local government was able to raise revenues associated with the property tax, as well as strengthen its municipal finances and modernize its cadastral and collection systems. Furthermore, Mexicali carried out this reform by adopting a land value taxation system, the first of its kind in Mexico, and gained the public’s acceptance for these changes. Without ignoring its problems and flaws, this case provides interesting lessons on future property tax reform endeavors in Mexico and other countries.

Economic, Political and Technical Considerations

Accomplishing property tax reform did not always seem to be an easy task in Mexicali or anywhere in Mexico. Since 1983, the local level of government has been responsible for setting up and collecting property taxes, although state authorities kept certain responsibilities. Throughout the 1980s, property tax revenues, and local revenues in general, experienced a severe drop caused by a combination of high inflation rates, economic recession, lack of political interest, and reduced administrative competence of local governments, which preferred to rely on revenue-sharing sources.

In the early 1990s, a clear improvement in the nation’s macro-economic performance made conditions more favorable for change, although political and technical factors reduced the incentives for many state and local governments to embark on fiscal reform. Nevertheless, the federal administration of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1989-1994) launched an initiative to improve local finances through a cadastre modernization program lead by BANOBRAS (Banco Nacional de Obras y Servicios), a public development bank.

Even before this program and other national policies began to exert an influence on local and state administrations, Mexicali took the lead in property tax reform. Starting in 1989, the newly elected mayor, Milton Castellanos Gout, saw the importance of having strong local finances and wanted to raise revenues at the beginning of his term. He hired a private consulting firm to update cadastral values. The main consultant, Sergio Flores Peña, a graduate in city and regional planning from the University of California at Berkeley, convinced the mayor to change from a mixed-value tax base on land and buildings to a land value system, and to design a mathematical model to calculate land values.

Rather than being attracted by theoretical or ideological beliefs about the advantages of a land value tax, Castellanos was convinced that it would be the easiest and fastest way to raise revenues. He took the political risk of proposing a Municipal Cadastral Committee, including real estate owners’ organizations, professional organizations and citizen representatives.

The results were spectacular in two ways: first, the new tax raised revenues quickly (see Table 1); and second, there was not a single legal or political objection from taxpayers. The increase in revenues from real estate property taxes and property sales, by far the most important source of local revenues, allowed the mayor to launch an important public works program. In the next fiscal year, however, he wanted to loosen his fiscal grip, so he did not pursue land valuation updates and abandoned the mathematical model that was originally created for that purpose.

Opposition to updating land values came from both the Municipal Cadastral Committee and the government officials in charge of the cadastre and valuation office who lacked the technical capability to manipulate the model and feared that their power and control might be weakened by the participation of the private consulting firm. As a result, the mathematical model was abandoned and land values where subsequently defined by a process of negotiation and bargaining between local authorities, elected representatives and the committee. However, the land value taxation system remained as the base to establish land values.

At the same time, the Castellanos administration embarked on a cadastre modernization program with financial resources from the federal government. However, since the mayor saw that his main objective of raising revenues had been achieved, the efforts to modernize the cadastral system became a secondary priority that was not as successful.

In subsequent administrations, the policy towards tax revenues and cadastre modernization varied. The next mayor, Francisco Pérez Tejeda (1992-1995), was a member of the same political party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI). He experienced a drop in property tax revenue during his first year in office, and taxes only increased at the end of his administration. He abandoned the cadastre modernization program, but maintained the land value taxation system.

The next administration was led by Eugenio Elourdy (1995-1998), a member of the Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN). He was the first opposition party leader in Mexicali, although a member of PAN had governed at the state level from 1989 to 1994. During Elourdy’s term, land values were updated, property tax revenues grew steadily and cadastre modernization was vigorously resumed. The current administration led by Victor Hermosillo (1999-2001) is continuing with cadastre reform.

Assessing the Mexicali Experience

There is no question that the process of fiscal reform has stimulated property tax revenues as the fastest and most important financial source for the city government. Currently, property tax revenues account for more than 50 percent of local municipal revenues. Mexicali is well above the state and national averages for the relative share of property tax revenues to total revenues (15.3 percent in 1995, compared to 8.4 percent at the state level and 10.3 percent at the national level). Local government officials in charge of the cadastre and valuation systems are well prepared with technical expertise and an awareness of the need to conduct permanent reform within the system. Mexicali’s example has already been replicated in the rest of the state of Baja California and in the neighboring state of Baja California Sur.

The Mexicali case offers some important lessons. First, the property tax plays a central role in strengthening local governments, not only for raising sufficient revenues for urban development but also for providing government officials with the skills to organize the tax system in a way that can be sound, legitimate and transparent.

Second, property tax reform requires vision, leadership and, most of all, political will and commitment from the executive. However, successful reform to raise taxes also depends on a sound technical base and acceptance by the general public.

Third, the land value tax proved to be extremely helpful in achieving successful reform at an early stage. It is clear that the rationale for adopting land value taxation had more to do with a pragmatic approach than with theoretical positions or debates over different schools of thought. However, this should not prevent government officials, consultants, scholars and the general public from thoroughly analyzing the diverse consequences of this approach in terms of economic efficiency, equity and administrative management.

Although a land value tax has proven to be successful in the case of Mexicali, it should not be viewed as a panacea for all situations. It is important to recognize that the tax can be of little help without other measures that have to be considered as part of property tax reform, such as cadastre modernization, clear policies on tax rates and public participation.

Finally, cases of property tax reform around the world cannot be viewed as black-and-white, success-or-failure experiences, but rather, like Mexicali, as stories that combine success, flaws and steps backward. Far from being a perfect example of property tax reform, Mexicali is a good learning experience. It shows that changes can take place in a field where very often one thinks that little can be accomplished.

Manuel Perlo Cohen is a researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He received support for this case study from the Lincoln Institute and he has participated in numerous Institute-sponsored courses and seminars throughout Latin America.