Property taxation financed most American government until the 1930s. Although now overshadowed by income and payroll taxes, levies on property still play a crucial role in the American system. They do much to finance "the government closest to home." This role will continue for as long as we can see. The quantity and quality of services of vital importance—those provided by schools, the police, streets, fire departments, and so on—will be affected significantly by revenues available from property taxation.
Criticism of this tax has been, and continues to be, pervasive. Yet the realistic issues involve a comparison of this revenue source with possible alternatives and of the methods of improvement. The latter subject, improving property taxation as it operates in practice, deserves attention not only because the tax will play a prominent part in American life but also because the rates are high enough in many localities to have significant nonrevenue effects and because avoidable and correctable defects exist.
Policymakers at both state and local levels have scope for meaningful reforms in the structure of property taxation. What are some of the alternatives? What results can be expected from one choice rather than another? The full range of results will include more than will appear on the surface and more than advocacy can be expected to examine. The papers in this volume provide the knowledge of experts about important aspects of property taxation.
As questions about financing local government arise, the material in the nineteen essays here can help policymakers, and voters generally, in their decisions about the structure of the tax. Moreover, the experience that is drawn upon can point the way to improvements in administration—poor, too often very poor, administration still characterizes the tax as it operates in much of the country.
Drafts of the papers were prepared for a conference in September 1982 at Moley House of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Most of the authors were present to participate in person. They were joined by a group with diverse backgrounds, and the discussions revealed that all could learn from others. This volume will enable other Americans to gain a better