In honor of Independence Day, let’s hear it for the American taxpayer.
Taxes are a hot-button issue. Our ancestors fought a war of independence, partly over being taxed without any say-so in the matter. Taxes are fact of life, and a battleground of division over what is taxed and how much, and over the tax rates for different groups. It’s brutal.
Disclosure: I work for taxpayers and have for over 30 years. I am a taxpayer myself and have my own feelings about tax fairness and tax value. Every year it seems my assessed property valuation increases, triggering an almost automatic increase in my property tax.
As taxpayers we pay a lot of different kinds of taxes. Now, it does depend on where you live, but it is likely you pay local property tax, local and state sales tax, state and federal income tax, and maybe some creative local taxes and fees.
Again depending on where you live, there are likely city, county, state and federal services and programs you are paying to support. Plus, school district, college, recreation, fire and other special districts that may provide service.
Many taxpayers aren’t really sure what they are paying to support, or even how much of their tax bill supports each taxing jurisdiction. It can be quite confusing, and at times, frustrating.
Working for various local jurisdictions over my career, I’ve felt the pulse of taxpayers, and depending on whether the topic is taxes or services, the feedback varies.
I’ve heard the, “I’m a taxpayer, I pay your salary,” statement many times. There are variations of that statement, usually in frustration, but not always. With social media, it is much easier to make comments. Sometimes those comments are appreciative and at other times, very nasty.
I’m of the opinion that questions and feedback are always appreciated. That comes with the territory, and sometimes it helps to change or improve service. For example, users of a certain program or service may provide information to adjust hours or changes in service to reach more people. Many jurisdictions invest in citizen surveys, and often the results drive priorities, particularly changes in survey results or shifting trends. Data is important, but so are personal interactions with elected officials.
A million years ago, I worked for a different local jurisdiction and the mayor wanted to initiate a program where displays were placed around the city with a sleeve of prepaid postcards addressed to him at city hall. “Send the Mayor a Message” it was called. This was obviously before the Internet. We got hundreds of postcards sent in and we read every one. People got personal replies and many were forwarded to city staff to fix streets or correct other problems.
As I am writing, I imagined singer James Taylor making this into a blues song, somewhat “Steamroller.”
“I’m a taxpayer, baby. Workin’ to pay the man. Doin’ my job to keep the wheels of government spinning. Workin’ as hard as I can. Workin’ for the taxman.”
Sometimes comments from the public are negative and even unkind. You put the personal comments aside, and deal with the subject in the comment. By and large, local taxpayers (I’ll refer to them as the public) are appreciative and kind in their statements, even if they aren’t always happy. State and federal taxpayers may feel differently, and I suspect they do. School district taxpayers are in a different category and worthy of a separate blog. I am fortunate to have worked for jurisdictions that were interested in providing good service and being accountable to the public.
When someone calls with a specific problem they are asking for help; it is usually not blame they are looking to cast. When the caller cannot get to the correct person and they feel passed around, or receive what they consider a resistant bureaucratic attitude, the ire boils up. It’s easy to understand the frustration.
People contact us for help or information and they want to be listened to.
If that person is initially angry or frustrated, you, as the responder, listen and allow them to tell their story. They may be pissed as hell, and as the tip of the spear, that may feel like you. Unless you actually caused the problem, you can’t help their initial attitude, but you can greatly influence how they feel as you listen and attempt to assist them. I marvel at those with such a warm and compassionate attitude that even angry people are disarmed. Those folks aren’t reading from a customer service script, they are engaging with the caller.
In my experience, the majority of requests or complaints can be resolved. If it has to do with a crime or an offense that ultimately goes to court, the police or the enforcement inspector cannot guarantee a conviction, only an arrest or issuance of a ticket. If the request is filling a pothole or cleaning a storm sewer, crews have the machines and technology to adequately resolve that problem.
It used to be that complaints or inquiries came by letter or by telephone. I used to receive many of those calls and letters were referred to me to handle. Email and software applications have replaced letters and cut down on phone calls. Rest assured, residents will find a way to contact you.
Fixing a pothole or explaining how to file a building permit is relatively easy. What is more challenging for government is changing personal behavior. Speeding is one of the more difficult problems to make long-term changes. Short-term enforcement usually means short-term results. In some instances, traffic calming techniques are available, but they are costly and usually are considered a nuisance by those who live in the area. And, more of the speeders tend to be area residents.
Back to the money issue.
In this day of income taxes, property taxes, user fees, registration fees, sales taxes and other costs, taxpayers feel the pinch and are pushing back. As I said earlier, increasing assessed valuation on property automatically increases your property tax (unless that jurisdiction rolls back the tax levy). There are special sales taxes to support specific projects and services, users fees on services or systems, special taxing districts to pay for improvements or to support libraries or recreational authorities. School districts, fire districts and colleges have their own property tax levies. Residents of cities are generally taxed by the county they reside in even though they may not use county services.
Back in the late 1970’s, California taxpayers staged a revolt of sorts by getting a referendum (Proposition 13) passed that capped property taxes, to an annual inflation limit, and the property could not be reassessed in value except under certain conditions, like change in ownership or new construction. Since then, there have been other forms of restrictions placed on the raising of taxes, either approval of legislative action, public vote, or the institution of tax lids.
Like it or not, running government is expensive, just like anything else. Facilities must be maintained, water and power cost money, materials like asphalt and street light bulbs aren’t given away, construction projects aren’t done with lemonade sales, and to retain quality employees they expect livable wages. I won’t get into the the “lets run government like a business” issue because that is a more complicated issue that most want to believe.
It’s not easy being a taxpayer. I don’t mean coming up with the money, that’s a different argument; but it is challenging formulating reasonable expectations as a taxpayer and seeking redress when you want to contest something. It can bea jungle navigating the different governmental jurisdictions and figuring out who to contact. Do you take your issue to an elected official? Which one? You may have to go directly to that elected body for redress. Sometimes there is an official process, like appealing your property tax assessment. Generally, it’s up to you to figure out how to official processes.
Maybe you have to appeal to a board for a variance on the use of your property or a special use permit. The average citizen, who does not deal with this regularly, the journey can be one of learning codes, processes and proper strategy on presenting your case. Heaven forbid if you need to hire an attorney.
Even when you shuffle off this mortal coil, there are still regulations, legalities and expenses. It may not be you that deals with them, usually your family and heirs get that joy, but you might have to work the process of getting to your final destination (depending on the type of life you’ve led). Even God has a bureaucracy.