By Dave Simpson, columnist
The plight of an 87-year-old Park County man whose property taxes now consume a month and a half of his Social Security income takes me back to a feisty coffee group called “Too Dumb for Tax Caps, Inc.”
Cowboy State Daily reported last week that longtime Park County Assessor Pat Meyer, who cited the case of the elderly man, now favors tax cap legislation, in the face of property tax bills in his county that have risen 25 to 45 percent, due to skyrocketing assessments.
It’s worse in Teton County, where property tax bills are up 30 to 50 percent, and some even higher.
I’m a veteran of tax cap battles in two states, with the scars to prove it. In two counties in Illinois, where there is a county option to limit increases to five percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less, newspapers I ran supported tax caps, and voters approved caps by significant margins.
A state-wide tax cap in high-tax Nebraska (yes, it’s true), which I supported on the editorial page, failed.
In Wyoming, I’ve not seen the need for tax caps, because our property taxes are so much lower (about one third) than we paid in Illinois and Nebraska. But now, with property values on the rise, Assessor Meyer says something needs to be done, and I agree.
Do you believe that it suddenly costs 25 to 45 percent more to educate kids, fix roads, and operate government in Park County than it did last year? I don’t.
I once suggested to a Natrona County assessor that taxes should be based on what it takes to accomplish the tasks at hand, not on what taxing bodies can get. (He told me I didn’t know my caboose from a hole in the ground.)
Do you believe, however, that costs have risen as dramatically as those skyrocketing property values? Bad as inflation is, I don’t buy it.
Support tax caps and the first thing you’ll hear is that you don’t understand the needs of government. You need to be “educated” on how limiting tax increases would make it impossible for schools to educate, counties to pave and plow roads, cops to fight crime, and all the other stuff government does.
That’s what sparked a crusty coffee group in Illinois to dub itself “Too Dumb for Tax Caps, Inc.,” ridiculing elected officials who thought voters were too stupid to understand why government needs so much more than folks on fixed incomes get. Those coffee drinkers laughed out loud at the notion they had to be “educated.”
At a public hearing in Illinois, I posed this question to a school superintendent: “If you can’t operate on inflationary increases – like those on fixed incomes in our town – how many multiples of inflation do you think it takes to operate our schools?” Jaws dropped when he said they might be able to get along on twice the increases retired folks got in their Social Security.
Support tax caps and some will say you’re a “tax nut,” that you don’t care about education, and you’re greedy. But I thought someone in the community should stand up for the old guy – like that 87-year-old up in Park County – who is simply trying to hang on to the family home.
We were told that education would suffer irreparable damage if we passed tax caps in that Illinois county, but that didn’t happen. (I had two kids in the school district at the time.)
Support tax caps and you’ll be surprised, like I was, by the groups in opposition. In Illinois, the Farm Bureau came out against us. In Nebraska, AARP strongly opposed a state-wide tax cap, and helped defeat it. Most newspapers opposed caps. County Board members in Illinois told us if voters passed tax caps, they couldn’t ever buy another snowplow.
Twenty four years later, kids in that Illinois county get educated, roads get plowed, and bad guys go to jail, despite the dire predictions.
Crazy increases in property values shouldn’t result in crazy windfalls to government. Taxing bodies need to live in the real world, with the rest of us.
It’s a pity that capping taxes is now necessary in comparatively low-tax Wyoming.
But, looks like it might be.