The end result of the local government budget season for most of us is pretty simple: Our property tax bill will go up 5 percent. It’s an increase of about $200 a year on a $250,000 house.
That’s not a giant jump. It’s about the same as the current rate of inflation. As we’ve reported in The Mercury previously, property taxes in the Manhattan area are in the middle of the pack among similar communities in Kansas. We won’t be able to tell what the next round of tax increases mean, in terms of that ranking, but my educated guess is that the ranking will be about the same.
But of course for people on fixed incomes, or people who’ve had a rough go of it lately, it still hurts.
And the larger issue is the trend. The Mercury calculated a couple of years ago that property taxes in Manhattan — including the city, county and school district tax levies — had gone up 40 percent since 2011. Since then, local officials have bumped them up twice more. So over the course of a decade, for all practical purposes, your property tax bill has gone up by half.
The value of your house has gone up, most likely, by more than 20 percent in that time, and so in the end you’ll come out great. It’s better than living in a community where property values are declining, I can assure you.
But in the meantime, you have to pay the tax bill, and your increasing property value doesn’t do you any good.
The government could, in fact, cut the property tax rate in order to keep your bottom-line tax bill steady. But they don’t ever really do that.
Why not? It’s tempting to immediately jump to the conclusion that there’s wasteful spending, fraud or abuse. But that’s an easy answer, one that politicians try to sell you in order to get elected. It’s just fundamentally misleading.
Fraud and abuse? I don’t want to diminish the possibility, since our job as journalists is to keep an eye out for that sort of thing. But there’s been no evidence of it that amounts to anything. The harder part is figuring out what’s “wasteful.” I might note that the local governing boards include several budget hawks, people who get elected on the basis of their campaign to cut spending and/or hold down tax increases. They have not been able to build a consensus about “wasteful” spending that has to be eliminated.
The truth is that the vast majority of any government budget is spent on pay for government employees. We keep hiring more of them, and we keep giving them pay increases, and those decisions are largely defensible, based on what we want to get done as a community.
The reality is, if we want to start restraining the growth of your property tax bill, so that it’s not half again bigger in another decade, we’ll collectively have to make tough decisions about people. It’s hard work. You’re more than welcome to join in.