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[The Hall Monitor] School Taxes Are Up But Not As Much As Houses

Todd Huttunen began appraising more than 20 years ago with a few years off in between to pursue a career in cabinet making. He relegated that to hobby status and is currently an appraiser in an assessor’s office. His best friend dubbed him The Hall Monitor because of his rigidity and respect for rules. He offers Soapbox readers tongue-in-groove insight on appraisal issues.

Two sure things: death and school taxes. …Jonathan Miller

The median price of a single family house in Westchester County – $285,000 in 1996, had increased 139% to $680,000 by 2006. There have been no complaints in our (Assessor’s) office from homeowners who were along for that ride. School taxes however, have also increased during that ten year span, though not quite to the same extent. For the twenty school districts comprising lower Westchester County, the increase in the school tax rate (less any reduction in the taxable assessed value for the district) averaged 105% with a median increase of 110%. I’m still waiting for the first person to come in to our office and say “Although my school taxes have more than doubled, I understand that the value of my house has gone up be even more than that, so I can’t really complain”. The fact is they can complain, and they do!

I do not have the statistical data to support this statement, but there has been a significant increase in student enrollment, the result of a recent “baby boomlet”, which is at least partially responsible for the double-digit annual increases in the school tax rates. This however, is no comfort to those struggling beneath the weight of ever increasing tax bills, particularly those on a fixed income, which is to say senior citizens. Fortunately, there are exemptions available to seniors, depending on their income, (Enhanced Star and Senior Citizens) which can lessen their tax burden to a significant degree. Unfortunately, whatever reductions they may see in their burden are merely re-apportioned to the rest of us. There is a certain amount of money that has to be raised and this is the tax levy. And if one taxpayer’s bill is reduced by one dollar, everyone else will see an increase to the extent necessary to make up that one dollar. It is a zero-sum game.

The most common argument I hear from people, usually but not always seniors, goes like this “I don’t have any children in the school district so why should I have to pay school taxes?” My answer has two parts. Part one is “there was a time when you did have children in school, and others didn’t, and yet they paid for yours.” But I think the more accurate answer is that there is a societal cost to the raising of each new generation. In supposedly advanced societies such as ours, we pay school taxes. We don’t have to pay school taxes – we don’t even have to have public education at all! Let those who can afford it send their children to private school and to hell with the rest of them! However, NOT educating children has a cost as well, a societal cost. Not paying, it seems to me, is not one of the choices. We can pay for schools, or we can pay for jails, and the fear of a group of young people walking by, or the frustration of day to day life interacting with store clerks who can’t make change for a dollar. But not paying is not one of the choices.

I am not an apologist for the status quo. Clearly, the cost of providing the services we expect in our communities has reached a tipping point and will, at some point, affect our ability to compete in a global marketplace, where one’s geographic location is less important than ever before. But for this to happen, people living in our communities have to take responsibility, as citizens, and participate more fully than they have in the past. As one who works with “the public” every day, I’m not hopeful. The old adage goes, in reference to a question posed to the average citizen “Which do you think is the greater problem today, ignorance or apathy”, to which the citizen answers “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”