Greed, taxes and a lack of empathy

It’s tax time in Travis county and Austin, that means it’s the annual hand wringing and whining because the property values are up again, by huge amounts.

gop_greed_over_people_badge-r5803b6831b244f1ab8d9e1519c522292_x7j3i_8byvr_324[1]Taxes are all relative. The total of tax paid is still stunningly low compared to the quality of life and services you get for that. Yes, property taxes are high, but sales tax is relatively low, there is no state income tax, and while the Ledge and Republicans have you convinced that Federal Taxes are high, and money being wasted on drug taking, idle, work shy, “minorities”, it doesn’t matter that that is or is not true, taxes are not really high.

I have never had children in school in Austin, and will never have. I would guess I’ve paid over $60,000 for that choice alone. I’m guessing when most people complaigning were born or arrived in Austin, there were already schools? If thats true, someone paid for them. Probably a lot of people paid taxes for them and couldn’t use them as they were still being built. I’m guessing when they arrived the city had services, roads and other common amenities. How did they get there, someone paid taxes for them.

Those complaining are simply paying for the next generation and you are paying so that those families who can’t afford private education, have some expectation of having children who have a chance in life, and don’t become a burden on the same tax paying society.

I think the problem many of us have, is, those that complain about taxation seem out of touch or sheltered by comparison and lack empathy or sympathy for the real challenges. While I don’t know you, or anything about your quality of life, I’m guessing you don’t worry about water, food, and live in fear because you live in a dangerous environment? All the facilities, effort, and labor that goes into providing the conditions that allow you to live that way, were in general, provided by taxation. Usually that taxation was provided by someone else, your forefathers, others, the people that founded your city etc.

Too many people these days lack empathy, they are, in some respects selfish. They demanding they keep more of THEIR income, and not understanding that if they had to pay their fair share for the free facilities they get to use, in what is essentially a pretty dam good 1st world life, would be paying way over 50% of their total income in taxes. Even if taxes stayed the same, that would mean real cuts being made. Those cuts almost always are targeted at the people who will complain least, because they often are in real fear, too busy getting by.

Yep, I hate the way property taxes are done in Travis County, it’s a sham. Businesses are not assessed fairly, there are too many suspicious valuations. However, while my income has stayed relatively flat since I arrived in Austin from the UK via New York City, my total gross income is still way up and I do not participate in any tax avoidance schemes. So when the politicians promise homestead exemptions, reducing the tax bill etc. they are doing nothing but pandering to the lowest common denominator, and increasingly that represents a generation who don’t understand how good they have it.

Wonky property taxes

The new Austin 10/1 council is pretty much settled after the run-offs. The new districts will be represented by 9 new Council members, two of whom are Realtors, a new Mayor with zero Council experience, all voted in by an appallingly low voter turnout especially in the runoff elections. In District-3,  Sabino “Pio” Renteria won with just 2,555 votes, a victory by 833 votes… I assume a mere $10,000 could have bought victory for  his opponent by paying locals $10 to go vote. I bet that TV and newspaper advertising looks lame now.

propertytax1One of the flagship, priority subjects will no doubt be property tax. Most candidates had a position on it, almost all want to discount or cut it. Hold on, not so fast. Anyone who actually thinks it through knows, property tax has almost nothing to do with affordability. I can certainly easily pay for my taxes now, but the question is, will I still be able to pay them in 20-years.

That’s certainly the problem most long term residents of the core/downtown neighborhoods face now. They generally live in modest homes, whose lot price and property tax evaluation has gone through the roof. The guy that lived opposite me, 73 when he died in April, couldn’t afford to retire. He was an (arthitic) plumber. He was paying, even with an age discount, more per year than he paid for a mortgage when he bought the property with a small deposit from his mothers estate after she died.

That effect can’t be allowed to continue for many reasons, not least because it is not acceptable. That people who have lived in their home, in what was often a modest property, in a less attractive neighborhood,are now, in their later years, being forced to move. A time when you often are less prepared for change, less able to make new friends, less willing to learn where to go and to get to pretty much everything.

Yes, they can make a ton from selling, and yes, many may chose to do that to move into assisted living, but they shouldn’t be forced to because thy cannot afford property taxes.

The whole issue has become conflated in the usual Tea party, “any tax” is to much rhetoric..  Rather than everyone jump on the bandwagon demanding a property tax cut, and the new 10/1 council lauding it around as having done something important, which the current proposal, clearly isn’t.

Julio Gonzalez has two great posts that show what the current proposal means on his Keep Austin Wonky blog. The Homestead Exemption debate in 2 minutes and 10 bucks or 10,000 homes

Property Tax, Travis county, Austin

There are a number of threads running through the posts on this blog about Austin and Texas. One key aspect of them is how things get paid for, and what gets paid for. Since Texas(bigger than Germany, approx. 7/8 the Population of Germany) has no income tax, as boasts about it’s low corporate taxes, apart from the 6.25% sales tax, property tax is key.

(c) http://www.tax-rates.org
(c) http://www.tax-rates.org

Property tax, the valuation and assessment of properties has become both increasingly complex, and for many long term residents, unaffordable. Among those arguing for greater density in Austin, there are calls for better transportation, more affordable rents etc.

The fact that Caesar Chavez currently has more high rise development than any other street in America, added to all the stories and blatant self promotion that Austin in #1 in this, no.1 in that, highest ranked for everything has lead to a typical Texas business friendly “gold rush” over the last 10-years, eight of which have been presided over by rail-or-fail Mayor Leffingwell.

All this has lead to massive gentrification of the core and central neighborhoods. Development and re-development in itself isn’t evil, it’s the nature of the development and the context it’s done in. However, when that development is done by forcing people who’ve spent their adult lives in a neighborhood out, because they can no longer afford among other things, the property taxes, thats just plain wrong and bordering on financial exploitation.

Imagine, you were a hard working manual worker, domestic, construction, yard, office, transportation, etc. in the late 1970’s in Austin. A very different place. South of the river was mostly for the working poor, as a legacy of the cities 1920’s policies, east of I35 for the racially segregated families. You’ve struggled in the heat with no central a/c, poor transport options, typical inner city problems. Your do what you can to plan for your retirement, depend on federally provided health programs and finally you get to retire in your late 60’s.

Then along comes the modern, gold rush Austin. A few people, often like me, move into your neighborhood because we want something authentic, real rather than remote, urban sprawl neighborhoods. Sooner or later, business spots the opportunity to take advantage of the low property prices, the neighborhood starts to pick-up and before you know it, your meager retirement can’t afford the property taxes that are now annually more than the price of your house from 40-years ago.

Few people seem to understand the emotional, and stressful impact of having to even consider moving, let alone being financially relocated in your reclining years. It changes virtually every aspect of your life. One possible solution to this, and some of Austins other problems is the “accessory dwelling”. I’ll return to ADU’s in a subsequent post, it isn’t a simple as just making then easier to get permitted an built though.

With the City of Austin, typically for Texas, siding with business and refusing to challenge commercial property tax appraisals, the burden falls on private homes. That’s why it is important for everyone to protest their appraisals until the existing system changes.

If you don’t understand how the system works, and more importantly, why you need to protest, the Austin Monitor has a great discussion on soundcloud.

While I can see my obvious bias, as I said in my July 4th post, I for one would rather opt for a state income tax, even if that meant I would end up paying more tax. That though is very unlikely to ever happen in Texas, and so until then we have to push back and get to a point where businesses and commercial property owners pay their fair share.

Why bias? Well, I’m in my 50’s, I won’t be working for ever, and my income will then drop off sharply. At least as it currently stands, I plan to stay were I am.