Local Property Tax Reform
To what extent are problems of distressed urban areas attributable to the property tax, and how can changes in property taxation help remedy urban decline? Political leaders, policy analysts and public finance experts gathered to discuss this complex and controversial issue during a Lincoln Institute seminar in New Haven on March 15.
John DeStefano, Jr., now in his second term as Mayor of New Haven, opened the session with a strong indictment of the property tax as a cause of urban ills. Described by the New York Times as "a leading spokesman for a growing number of people who believe Connecticut's reliance on the property tax is harming not just the state's cities, but its entire economy," Mayor DeStefano argued that high relative property taxes in Connecticut were a direct cause of the state's decline in population and jobs. From 1990 to 1995 Connecticut lost over 12,000 residents, while New Haven and Hartford suffered the two steepest population declines of any U.S. cities during that period.
His concern was shared by representatives from the Capital Region Council of Governments, the Regional Growth Partnership of South Central Connecticut, and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, which distributed a report stating that overdependence on the property tax was "reducing quality of life in all of Connecticut's cities and towns."
How can this widespread assumption linking property taxes to urban ills be tested, and what changes in the sources of local revenue could encourage urban revitalization? It may be that shifting demographic and economic patterns, such as the large defense industry cutbacks that have reduced Connecticut's supply of high-wage jobs, have more to do with employment and population loss than does the property tax. If so, changing the property tax will not address the underlying causes of urban decline. Property taxes in Connecticut are not as far from the national average as a percentage of personal income as they might appear in absolute dollars (see chart).
Will lowering property taxes enhance economic growth if it is accompanied by an increase in other forms of taxation? Meeting growing needs in urban areas with a declining economic base is a problem of dependence on locally based taxation, not a problem of property taxation alone. Shifting from one local tax to another will not necessarily assist the neediest cities that have the least amount of revenue to draw upon.
Alternative Revenue Sources
What revenue sources can offer alternatives to the property tax as it is currently structured? The property tax base in the U.S. initially included real property and personal property, tangibles and intangibles alike; the restriction to land and buildings was the result of nineteenth-century reform efforts. Seminar speaker C. Lowell Harriss urged that these two portions of the property tax base be considered separately. The first, a tax on land values, deserves even more intensive use than it is getting, he argued, whereas the second, a tax on man-made capital such as buildings, machinery and inventories, warrants even more condemnation than it receives.
Donald Reeb of the State University of New York at Albany examined the actual process of obtaining state and local support for such a shift. He described successful efforts to permit Amsterdam, New York, to change from a single-rate property tax to a graded tax with a higher rate on land than on building value.
Robert Schwab of the University of Maryland discussed his own study of Pittsburgh's two-rate tax, with buildings taxed five times as heavily as land. This case has particular interest for the issue of causality--whether or not the tax itself deserves credit for improving the local economy. Schwab drew a subtle distinction between finding that the tax had caused an increase in building and investment and that the tax had not impeded development. Although he felt that his study could not support the first proposition, he endorsed the second and emphasized its importance. This led to discussion of the special nature of a tax on land, which avoids the excess burden caused by most other forms of taxation in terms of lost efficiency.
Ronald Fisher of Michigan State University challenged the perception that heavy property taxation alone was the main problem for Connecticut's economy. He pointed out that the state presents a complex mix of high personal income, relatively modest governmental expenditures, low income taxes, and consequent reliance on sales and property taxes. Connecticut only introduced a state personal income tax in 1991, and that tax has been the object of intense political protest and repeal efforts. In discussing various revenue sources, including local income taxes, local sales taxes and user charges, Fisher also questioned whether the absence of effective regional government in Connecticut could be partially responsible for the disparities between distressed central cities and prosperous suburban areas.
Tax-base and Revenue Sharing
Further discussion probed options for tax-base and revenue sharing as ways to reduce the tax burden on urban residents while meeting city revenue needs. The Connecticut Property Tax Reform Commission has recommended simply increasing state aid. Another option would reduce unfunded mandates in areas such as welfare and education.
A third alternative uses state funds to allow property taxes to serve as a credit against income taxes for low-income homeowners--and a refund to those with no income tax liability. Termed a "circuit breaker," it is designed to prevent property taxes from exceeding a fixed proportion of income. The credit sometimes extends to renters as well. Over half the states provide some form of circuit breaker, but most are limited to senior citizens.
Lee Samowitz, a Bridgeport state representative, presented a proposal for regional service districts financed by a portion of the commercial and industrial tax base. Direct tax-base sharing of this type has its longest history in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, which for 25 years has pooled 40 percent of the growth in the industrial and commercial property tax.
Yet such programs face formidable political hurdles, in part because most areas have fragmented or weak regional governments. According to economists Howard Chernick and Andrew Reschovsky, "Despite its success in Minnesota, the prospects for the establishment of tax-base sharing plans in other metropolitan areas are poor. The political representatives of those communities that would be net 'losers' under a tax-base sharing plan, or who believe they will be net losers at some point in the near future, will oppose tax-base sharing."
Political obstacles have impeded plans for tax-base sharing in recent years in a number of states. However, the discussion in New Haven made it clear that property tax reform will become increasingly important as an element in the search for regional solutions to urban problems.
Joan Youngman, senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute, is an attorney and expert on legal problems of valuation for property taxation. She develops and teaches courses on land taxation and regulation issues.
Chernick and Reschovsky. "Urban Fiscal Problems: Coordinating Actions Among Governments," Government Finance Review, vol 11, no. 4 (August 1995) p. 17ff.
Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. Property Tax Relief and Reform, Public Policy Report #96-03. March 1996. 900 Chapel St., 9th floor, New Haven, CT 06510-2807. 203/498-3000.
Fisher, Ronald C. State and Local Public Finance. Chicago: Irwin, 1996.