Publisher's Note: Vote for your tax dollars
By Jody Reese
As concern for the economy grows, government is taking on more responsibility, from bailouts to mortgage assistance to unemployment benefits. Though there seems to be a consensus that government should be doing something, there is broad disagreement on what that should be.
On the small-government side, it’s tax cuts, fewer government mandates and regulations, and on the other side, it’s tax credits, more government regulation and cash injections to the banking industry.
All this raises an important question that we have been struggling with since the turn of the last century. What is the role of government and how should it be paid for?
Locally, there is a small movement to restrict city and town spending by capping the amount those communities can tax their constituents. The hope behind such measures is that local governments will become more efficient and offer better services for less money. The opposing view argues that local governments are already spending as little as they can to provide the current level of services and that any less spending will result in service cuts.
On the local level there is more of a consensus on what government should be spending its money on: schools, police, street maintenance, parks and fire protection. Local governments aren’t bailing out banks or helping with the auto industry. The disagreement on the local level comes down to how much should these services cost. And that, as any sales professional will tell you, comes down to value.
What value do customers place on that good or service? Why will consumers spend two or three times as much for a pair of Levis jeans as they will for a pair of no-brands at Building #19? Both do the same thing. The answer is value.
The struggle between paying taxes and providing services comes down to how much residents think those services are worth. That’s why people with kids in schools tend to support higher teacher pay and investment in sports facilities and why relatives of public services employees support higher pay for police officers and road workers (they see the value in terms of good jobs).
But most residents do not have a relative who works for their community or have kids in school. That leaves many with an open question: what are my tax dollars getting me? Or put another way, where is the value?
In communities where that’s not clear, tax cap proposals will succeed. In others, where local governments have had discussions with residents and are open and honest about the costs of keeping up roads, providing police protection and so on, taxpayers may be convinced of the value.
I think local government can have great value to me the taxpayer. I choose to live in a community because I like it and that includes the town services. That agreement falls apart when my local government fails to give me value for my tax dollars.
That’s the challenge that local governments face, and it’s more acute during a down time in the economy. Residents are looking to trim spending. They’ll trim where they don’t see value. Local governments will only have themselves to blame if residents don’t see the value and choose to reduce their taxes by passing a tax cap or electing officials who slash and burn.