Yes you can pay for big infrastructure projects from local real estate tax

 

August 2017 view south from Jackson Blvd bridge. It turns out this structure is the remnant of an underground bypass to handle river flow. Click image to enlarge. (photo by Menace of Privilege)

Building The Canal to Save Chicago by Richard Lanyon is a great book about a critical infrastructure project. It’s the story of what we now call the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, built at the close of the 19th century to protect Chicago’s water supply.  Of course there’s more to it than that, including effects on flooding, navigation, and downstate.

The book is full of photographs of the work, and one cannot ignore how dirty, strenuous, dangerous (and noisy) it must have been.  Power shovels, dredges, locomotives, various devices for moving soil out of the channel– all powered by coal, burned without emission controls of course. Over 5,000 people were employed, and there were deaths — unfortunately no count is provided.

We get some useful details about the costs and funding.  Substantially all of the construction (which began in 1892 and was substantially complete in 1900) was done by contractors under competitive bidding. The work day was set at 8 hours, with extra pay for work beyond that time. Minimum wage was to be 15¢/hour.

Adjusted to today’s (2015) GDP/capita, that 15¢ equates to about $37.50, but other approaches would yield vastly different numbers.  Of course, due to the primitive equipment available, the workers could not have been nearly as productive as equivalent workers would be today.

Total cost of the project was reported as $33,530,000 (page 355 — excluding work east of Damen). This could equate to $8.38 billion today. It was paid entirely (page 338) from property taxes imposed on the approximate area benefited (including bonded debt paid from these taxes), without federal or state financial assistance. Initially the tax rate was 0.5% of assessed valuation, later raised for a five-year period to 1.5%.  If based on actual property value, this would be a very hefty tax, but traditionally property in Cook County has been assessed at a modest fraction of market value.

I say “property tax” rather than “real estate tax” because, up until the 1970s, Illinois taxed personal property as well as real estate.  The tax was poorly-enforced and hard to administer, and was replaced by a corporate income tax surcharge.  I suspect that personal property never amounted to more than a small fraction of the tax base.

 

Won’t be finishing this book

Laurel & Hardy silhouettes. Image credit: Stephen McCulloch CC BY-SA 2.0

A Fine Mess by T R Reid. The subtitle is: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System. A great quest, and certainly something to investigate. Grabbed it off the library shelf, started to read, and …

Any time I see what might be a thoughtful book about taxes, I pretty soon turn to the index to see what it says about Henry George, land values, or economic rent. Hey, Reid devotes about six of his 262 pages to a section about Henry George and land value tax (tho he sort of conflates this to the “property tax” which includes improvements.) He acknowledges George’s historic significance and the logic of the Georgist argument.  Then he says:

In George’s day, government– and thus the funding needed to pay for it– was vastly smaller than what we know today… [I]n 1879 there was no Social Security, no Medicaid, no NASA, no Department of Transportation or Energy or Health & Human Services.  Some economic historians argue that the Georgian Single Tax might have been adequate to maintain the relatively minimal governmental establishment of the 1880s…No country has ever been able to fund its governments with only the Single Tax on the value of land that Henry George envisioned.

He does not say “Full collection of economic rent would be insufficient to fund all the legitimate functions of government,” tho he certainly implies it.  So a response is needed.  And available.

  • If the government provides services which make the community (city, state, country, whatever unit) a more pleasant or productive place, what is the effect on the value of land? Does this not apply to the services Reid mentions?  If it does not, why should the people continue to pay taxes for such services?
  • If all the taxes which make labor expensive and real wages low, such as the tax on earned income, payroll tax, sales tax, tax on houses, utility tax, Medicare tax, were abolished, what would be the effect on the value of land?  And what would be the effect on the need for that part of government expenditures which assist the poor?
  • In fact, how has the value of land in America changed  since George’s time? It is a national embarrassment that we do not have reliable information to address this question, but surely the answer is “multiplied manyfold.” One reasonable estimate (pdf)  of today’s value is $23 trillion (as of 2009). That’s more than the national debt.  Because land value is a function of rent, and because all taxes come out of rent, imagine how much greater land value would be in the absence of all the anti-productivity taxes as noted above.

Of course, George’s proposed tax does not apply only to land as conventionally defined.  It also includes taxes on mineral rights and extraction, electromagnetic spectrum, water rights, and more. (Mason Gaffney compiled a pretty complete outline (pdf)) It also applies to the moon and planets, should NASA or some billionaire claim rights.

So since Reid neglects to properly evaluate the potential of the single tax, I’m not inclined to read his book because I wouldn’t know what other oversights it might contain. But I did browse thru it.  Reid really likes the value-added tax: “We should…implement this tax and use the money it raises to cut taxes on work and savings. (page 255)”

Uh, what are the economic purposes of work and savings? Yeah, to buy goods and services, now or in the future.  Substituting a VAT for taxes on earned income would permit people to get earn or save more dollars — and would make more expensive the things people want to spend those dollars on.

Gaffney has provided a further case against VAT (pdf).

 

The only honest way to do income tax

“ All of Nature Flows Through Us” by Marc Quinn

photo credit: Randi Hausken CC BY-SA 2.0

In Norway, it turns out, income tax returns are public, sort of. Apparently you need to be Norwegian, or know somebody who’ll let you use their government registration number. And the taxpayer will know who has looked at her information. Authorities say “We like people to do searches which could help us in investigating tax evasion…” Logically, if taxes on income are a major source of public revenue, it makes sense that the public should be able to see the details of how these amounts are determined.

And in Norway, like most places, big landowners are able to minimize their tax:

The tax lists only tell you people’s net income, net assets and tax paid. Someone with a vast property portfolio, for instance, would probably be worth far more than the figure found in the lists, because the taxable property value is often far less than the current market value.

Just to be perfectly clear, I am not suggesting that U S and Illinois income tax returns should be open to public inspection. That would be a second-best solution. The best solution is to abolish the income tax, as well as most other taxes, and obtain revenue for legitimate government costs thru public collection of land rent.

h/t Slashdot which was my original link to the BBC article.

Tribune exposes one scandal and misses a bigger one

Property tax needs attention

credit: From Sovereign to Serf (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Chicago Tribune, or what’s left of it, has issued a pretty good report on inequities and corruption at the Cook County Assessor’s office. Of particular note, they’ve included a lot of detailed statistics looking at assessment/sales price ratios, as well as a lot of details of recent history.  I think it’s fair to describe their main points as:

  1. Less expensive homes typically are assessed at a higher percentage of market value than more expensive homes, and therefore pay more taxes than they would if assessments more accurately reflected market prices.
  2. Sophisticated homeowners are more likely than unsophisticated ones to appeal their assessments, and a large percentage of appeals are successful.  This is one cause of the problem in (1).
  3. The quality of assessments in Cook County doesn’t meet professional standards of accuracy.  The MacArthur Foundation funded development of new mass appraisal methods which may provide more accurate results, but the Assessor has made little or no use of them.
  4. The Cook County Assessor’s office suffers from some combination of corruption and incompetence.

Read the rest of this entry »

Another example of location value

Don’t know if fair use permits me to use Bloomberg’s picture, so here’s a goose in Aurora, maybe somewhere near the site of interest. Image credit: Kenneth Cole Schneider (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Just in case anybody doubts that location has value in the 21st century, here’s a report from Bloomberg about a 31-acre Aurora parcel that became valuable because it’s adjacent to the CME Group‘s data center, enabling one to trade a millionth of a second faster. The site sold for $14 million, “probably twice as much as it’s worth” according to a local real estate exec. I would argue that it must be worth $14 million, else the buyer would not have paid it.

The article reports a couple other nearby deals, but provides no parcel numbers nor even a map, so we can’t see what the assessment of this parcel is.  There’s also no indication who the seller was.

More jobs –> less recidivism

Click this image of Abashiri Station, Hokkaido to learn how it relates to recidivism. Image credit: David McKelvey .license: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic

Many of us have long assumed that a strong demand for labor results in less crime.  At least, less of the kind of crime people get imprisoned for.  And of course we assume this works most strongly for people at the bottom of the economic ladder, a category which includes most of those released after serving time in prison.

Now we have a study (or more precisely, a report on a study because the original source is behind a paywall) which confirms this assumption. Basically, those released into a strong economy are less likely to return to prison than those released in slack times.  Because the study was apparently done at the county level, there would be enough cases that it’s not a statistical artifact. From the abstract:

[B]eing released to a county with higher low-skilled wages significantly decreases the risk of recidivism. The impact of higher wages on recidivism is larger for both black offenders and first-time offenders, and in sectors that report being more willing to hire ex-offenders. These results are robust to individual- and county-level controls…

So, since taxing privilege rather than production is an economic development tool, we can also assert that it is an anti-crime measure.

Declining number of homeless Americans

Here’s another assertion that our “civilization” is collapsing.  Of course I don’t know that it’s collapsing, maybe it is, but I decided to arbitrarily pick one of the signs identified in the article:

The “misery index” mushrooms, witnessed by increasing rates of homicide, suicide, illness, homelessness, and drug/alcohol abuse;

I haven’t time to look up all of these, so I picked one  — homelessness. It happens that the Federal Dept of Housing & Urban Development, while not doing other mischief, runs an annual point-in-time survey of the number of homeless.  And look what it shows:

source: The 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress. (PIT=”point in time”)

Observed homelessness is declining. That doesn’t mean rent isn’t too high, it doesn’t mean that people aren’t imposing on friends or relatives for temporary shelter, it doesn’t mean that lots of folks don’t lack the opportunity to earn a decent living, and it doesn’t mean that people don’t hide from government officials.  But it does mean that one arbitrarily chosen statistic, used to support the ongoing collapse, doesn’t.

An improved real estate tax can help revitalize the south suburbs

photo of a south suburban rainbow by Tom Gill (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Thanks to Crains for an article discussing the multiple difficulties of maintaining the south side of Chicago, and the south Cook County suburbs, as viable communities. There are a lot of issues here, but two of them are real estate taxes and vacant lots. The article notes that effective tax rates – taxes as a percentage of property value – in the south suburbs are more than double the average (I suppose they mean the average for Cook County). And that’s for the south suburbs as a whole; in one area your annual tax bill will be over 10% of what your real estate is worth.

So of course there are numerous vacant lots as well as rundown properties. If you spend $100,000 to build a house in an area where the effective tax rate is 10%, you’ll pay $10,000/year tax (in addition to the tax on the unimproved land value). That’s far more than your mortgage, maintenance, and utilities would be, so you don’t build it.

In fact, it’s worse, because Cook County, in practice, assesses residential properties at a higher percentage of value than vacant land – 56% higher according to the latest data(pdf) from the Illinois Department of Revenue. Even more incentive to let the property run down.

Suppose, instead, that two changes were made:

(1) Assess the value of vacant land, as well as of houses, accurately. This is the responsibility of the Cook County Asssessor.

(2) Stop giving vacant land the discount that residential property gets. Currently, commercial and industrial properties are supposed to pay a tax rate 2.5 times what houses and vacant land pay. That might not be a good idea, but it’s the law as enacted by the Cook County Board. The Board could move vacant land into the same category as commercial and industrial land.

If these two changes were made, the effective tax rate on vacant land would be triple, or more, what it is today. That changes the calculation for the land owner. Suddenly the cost of holding land vacant is higher, which means the alternative – developing or selling it – is lower. That’s important, because more development means more housing and/or more jobs.

Of course this change would raise more revenue for schools and other governments, or perhaps could be used to lower taxes on other uses. The amount of revenue isn’t certain, since the Assessor does not share information on the number or value of vacant parcels.

There is absolutely no danger that owners will pick up their vacant land and move it out of Cook County. It is here to stay. We just need to fix the incentives to encourage development in areas where it is lacking.

This is not the whole solution to the difficulties of the south suburbs, but it is one useful step that costs homeowners and governments nothing.  All it requires is for Cook County officials to do their jobs.

How come a LaSalle County TV station is the most valuable in the country?

image credit: Brian Smith (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Well now, more precisely, how come the spectrum held by  a TV station broadcasting from Ottawa fetched a higher price than any other station offered? WWTO is owned by Trinity Broadcasting and broadcasts on five digital subchannels according to the Wikipedia article.  According to the report today from the Federal Communications Commission, their spectrum sold for $304 million, highest in the U S. , while WYCC’s spectrum in Chicago fetched only $16 million.  I know there are all kinds of technical considerations that might explain the difference, but it’s a curious one. Some of us are suspicious when government-owned assets are sold for a comparatively low price.  Both stations are reportedly going off the air.

Nationwide, most of the spectrum has been “purchased” by wireless companies but apparently some will be returned to the “unlicensed” category for use by wifi and similar low-power devices.

So most of the spectrum will be used by private corporations to provide services from which they expect to obtain a profit.  Kind of like commercial land, which everyone agrees is subject to tax.  So why does the government not tax privately-held spectrum?

Let’s watch the Assessor on this one

Some people are Cubs fans, others find it more interesting to watch the Assessor.

Crains reports that a very prosperous Cub, Jon Lester, has purchased and demolished the building next door to his home,apparently so that he could have a side yard.  Purchase price was $1.35 million, so the land must be worth that much.  It cost Mr. Lester more, of course, since he had to pay to demolish the place, but let’s take the $1.35 million over to the Assessor’s office. There we see that the property was assessed at $100,463, indicating a market value of $1,004,630 for the land + building. Land alone is about a quarter of this, so the Assessor seems to be saying the land is worth $250,000.  But it isn’t. Obviously it was worth over a million dollars. (And, checking Zillow, I see that the price isn’t out of line for the area.  A 3125 sq ft lot at 1450 W. Grace is on offer for $1.05 million. )

Now, under Cook County’s current rules, the tax bill is based on the assessment of the total parcel and it makes no difference which part is land and which part is building.  But with the building gone, it’s important for the assessed value to represent what the land is really worth. Otherwise the rest of us taxpayers have to cover part of Mr. Lester’s share.

(In case the link above stops working, you can readily find the parcel on the Assessor’s web site. Search for 1446 W Berteau, or parcel number 14-17-305-025-0000)

From the Assessor’s web site