The Property Tax and Local Finance

By C. Lowell Harriss | Go to book overview

The Property Tax in a
New Industrial Era

DONALD A. HICKS

The mood of the taxpayer has emerged as a significant factor in any analysis of the United States tax system. Nowhere is this truer than with respect to the local property tax and its highly visible role in local public finance. In recent years, a spate of fiscal containment measures has been used as a vehicle to convey citizens' exasperation with the size, cost, and perceived rate of increase in the public sector. This, despite the fact that government spending at all levels has increased at declining rates since the mid-1970s. Further, after sequential surges in government employment at the federal, local, and then state levels in the past quarter-century, employment growth rates have flattened across the board with actual shrinkage in the federal civilian labor force since 1969.

But it is not the mood of the taxpayer so much as the structure and function of the economy and the derivative politics that serve as the context for that mood that merit attention here. The present task is to suggest that systems of local public finance built around the property tax, which matured in congruence with the urban-industrial system, are now increasingly inappropriate, inadequate, and even obsolete. They are inappropriate in that they reinforce a notion of "localism" that, is itself unraveling because of deconcentration and counterurbanization trends that have been building throughout the latter decades of the old industrial era. They are inadequate because they are difficult to export into the new decentralized and multinodal settlements that define postindustrial urban America. A property-tax base is weakened through the attenuation and evaporation implied by widespread mobility in tandem with lower density growth and development.

The property tax has always been a fiscal tool whose relevance is based on its compatibility with the structural and spatial dynamics (such as concentration, urbanization, centralization, and standardization) of the urban-industrial era and the expanded variety of localized wealth that it could use as a base. Today

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