Where should anger be directed?
Down the block from where I live, someone’s put a homemade sign in the ground. It calls out about the mayor and the governor — and property taxes. Homeowners in Indianapolis are angry. We’ve been walloped, not once, but twice in less than four years with triple-digit property tax increases. Renters are not exempt from this whirlwind. Landlords will be passing along this latest tax increase in the form of higher rents.
Protestors gathered in front of the governor’s residence on the Fourth of July. The governor, as usual, wasn’t home, but he got the message. Last Sunday, there was a protest on the Circle and another rally took place Monday at the City-County Building.
People are angry. The one thing that many of us have been able to count on as a financial asset, our home, is suddenly starting to feel like a liability because of decisions made by a group of faceless bureaucrats called the State Tax Board. Times like this one are hard on our illusions. They remind us that no one truly owns their own place — it’s really the bank or the state. Suddenly one of the few things we thought we had under control is manifestly out of our control.
So we’re angry.
The question is, where should this anger be directed?
While it’s tempting to blame this or that politician, or the property tax itself, the fact is this crisis has been brewing for decades. It’s the outcome of a Hoosier culture given to a lazy disdain for government and the corrupt belief that politics are nothing but another way to make a buck.
For years, the way to get elected in Indiana — for Democrats and Republicans alike — has been to promise no new taxes and to cut the so-called fat from state and local government in the name of greater efficiency. That electing politicians whose claim to fame is hating government may, in fact, have contributed not just to the perpetuation of inefficiency, but downright incompetence seems to have escaped most of us, but never mind.
As long as Indiana could be run like a colony in the middle of the United States, providing the mother country with steel and corn thanks to a largely uneducated workforce, we could get away with this reactionary approach to governing. And so it was that up until recently, citizens in Indianapolis found themselves with a variety of trade-offs. The average income here was lower than elsewhere in the country, but so was the cost of living. If the value of our houses wasn’t appreciating as much as in other cities, well, we could say that houses here were more affordable than anywhere else. And if we had fewer city services, the trade-off was lower taxes, more money in our pockets.
But Indiana’s economy has changed. Indianapolis has grown. The trouble is that our political culture has remained the same. Roughly half of our state legislators run unopposed in every election. Many of them have been holding their seats since the 1970s. In Indianapolis, city politics are more informed by the short-term needs of developers and business people than by competing visions for making the city truly viable for the largest number of citizens.
This latest property tax increase presents us with the worst of all possible worlds. If we once could rationalize our patronizing and inept political culture in terms of the trade-offs it allowed some of us on a personal level, that time has passed. Indianapolis is no longer a low-cost city. According to a study done by the government of the District of Columbia and published in 2006 by CNNMoney.com entitled “Tax-friendly places 2006,” Indianapolis ranked 11th among 51 cities in property taxes, paying more than cities like Portland, Houston, Seattle, Philadelphia, Boston and Minneapolis.
And what have we gotten for our money? So far our political culture has (with our sleepy consent) brought us, among other things, a dysfunctional sewer system, failing schools, hazardous air and water, a depleted public safety system and crumbling roads and bridges. Bills, in other words, which are past due and must be paid if this city and state are to climb into the 21st century. Meanwhile, the state brags about raising a $1 billion budget surplus.
What’s truly discouraging is that the same clowns that created this mess are the ones supposedly navigating a way out of the current property tax crisis. Needless to say, they’ve grossly mismanaged things so far and may do real damage to Indianapolis before they’re through. People have reason to be angry. But if this anger serves to wake us up, so much the better. We need, at least, to get what we pay for.