Crisis by design

EDITORIALS

BY ART CULLEN

The Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors is faced with increasing tax levies because agland valuations plummeted by a third from slack commodity prices. No relief is in sight for coming years as a five-year rolling average from the complicated productivity formula fully reflects the last several years of lagging farm income. And, markets remain unsettled amid export uncertainty and over-production.

The result when levies rise is that the burden shifts disproportionately to the only other class that has been rising in valuation: residential. This is because of a distinct choice made by the legislature to essentially offer valuation breaks to commercial, industrial and multi-residential classes. The breaks for landlords and corporations are strictures on local governments (especially Storm Lake), and cause shifts of burden to homeowners who can least afford it.

Efforts to ease the property tax burden usually come from the sales tax, since the state is doing everything it can to limit income tax payments. Of course, the brunt of the sales tax is borne by the working family trying to pay the mortgage on a home for which valuations and levies are rising disproportionately.

Meantime, the geniuses in Des Moines devised a new regional mental health system that will cause a 30% increase in the county mental health levy. Again, the governor is talking about backfilling that hole with a sales tax increase.

Which all goes by way of saying that our tax system is a mess.

We are told enough to recall Terry Branstad as a young governor calling for an overhaul of the property tax system because it taxes the American Dream (to own a home) and our basic means of production (farmland). He never did anything but freeze taxes and suffocate local government services. We await the report of his blue-ribbon committee, which will do nothing to solve the Buena Vista supervisors’ headache.

Because of a billion dollars worth of income tax cuts over the decades, we got to a point where state aid to schools can’t keep pace with a pretty low inflation rate. Rural districts can barely afford to keep the buses on the road. BV County is trying to figure out how to swing a modest 2.5% raise for county workers. Cash reserves will be spent down to levels that may require the county to borrow money and pay interest to pay its bills. The county might find a way this year. But next? When ag valuations drop again?

And, if you own a home in Alta whose valuation rose by a third you might wonder whom you voted for when you get the double-whammy tax bill with that higher levy.

The legislature creates these conditions by responding to interests willy nilly until you end up with a tax system of Swiss cheese. A lot of stuff falls through the holes, like the need to take care of those with mental health needs, or maintain gravel roads along which the Chinese and Wall Street hogs pay no property tax because they are raised by Old McDonald.

The income tax breaks and the property tax breaks for the landlord did not help the person renting the apartment or the worker clearing snow at 3 a.m. in front of the complex. To look at the hodgepodge you would think it is a maze built of benign neglect. It is, in fact, an intricate design if you step back.

Spreading the love

A friend who had not bought his wife roses in awhile found himself a little short on cash at the register. An old man for whom Valentine’s Day was not marked on the calendar in his homeland of Laos stood behind him in line, and tapped our friend’s shoulder with a fiver to cover the shortage. There was change back, and the man told our friend to keep it. “Just trying to spread the love around,” he said. Storm Lake is a fantastic place, even in February, where strangers are friends.

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