The Property Tax and Local Finance

By C. Lowell Harriss | Go to book overview

The Property Tax as a
Super User Charge

WALTER RYBECK

The property tax—more specifically, the portion that falls on land value — is by far the most appropriate instrument for charging citizens for public facilities and services. It is less complicated than most alternative user charges and more feasible to administer. It meets the test of fairness and avoids counterproductive aspects of some forms of user charges. The application of this type of land-value charge, moreover, may be a prerequisite for attaining the elusive goal of viable communities. The time is appropriate for a fresh look at the subject. A mammoth backlog of infrastructure needs and shrinking federal aid force cities that are hard-pressed for funds to search for new directions.

Behind the idea of the land tax as a super user charge is the reality that infrastructure creates its own revolving fund, namely, the land-value tax base. The trouble is, little of this fund revolves back to the public entities that create it. Government earns its keep but then fails to collect its due.

Given the wide acceptance of the concept that streets, schools, police protection, and other governmental goods and services contribute to land values, the relatively scanty research to quantify and analyze this contribution is surprising. The immensity of land values generated by public action does not seem to be common knowledge. In the mid-1950s, California Assemblyman Vernon Kilpatrick calculated that state subsidy of the Feather River water project would give southern California landowners "an equivalent of a brand new Cadillac for each and every acre they own." 1

In a study published when Metro, the subway serving metropolitan Washington, D.C., was one-third completed, $2 billion was identified in new land values over and above normal growth. This amount reflected only a sample of areas around then-working Metro stations, and only those portions of neighborhoods where the evidence was beyond question. Conservative interpolation of the

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1
Frontier, March 1956, pp. 7-9.

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