"the" Property Tax Today
JOHN O. BEHRENS
Neither "the" property tax nor its "general nature" really exists, at least not in the United States. Instead, there is a venerable, slightly battered, still-evolving agglomeration of fiscal instruments that produced $82.3 billion in revenue in fiscal 1982, largely for local governments. Collectively, these instruments constitute a multijurisdictional adaptation to perceived reality. Property taxes now in use bear only a faint resemblance to the evanescent imposts existing in definitions.
If it did exist, the general property tax would be a levy on all taxable property, with the amount of tax measured by the value of the property. The inherent implications of such a tax are the areawide application of a common rate and a value for each taxable property that is completely uniform with the value of each other taxable property. But existing levies on property are many, not one, and are general in name only. Common nominal rates are often evident, but effective rates vary widely. Moreover, neither in retrospect nor in prospect, is uniformity among all taxable values likely to be encountered with any significant precision.
Historically, three patterns have prevailed: accommodation to abiding notions of value normalcy, occasional surrender to varying political influences among taxpayers, and public acquiescence to a pattern of often inadequate assessment performance. Values long below "market" gained easy acceptance within a consensus that the market was somehow abnormal; and, besides, assessors "could not possibly see every property every year."
A converse situation frequently prevails today. Computer-assisted techniques, such as adaptive feedback and multiple regression, call into question the validity of anything longer than an annual assessment cycle. Assessors know more about their craft than did assessors a generation ago. In a growing number of places, they display a competence as welcome as it is ironic. It turns out that classic appraisal approaches to value can yield results unevenly sensitive to price fluctuations and other changes, including such new factors as creative