We Have Got to Start Holding Local Leaders Responsible for Property Tax Hikes

Fargo City Commissioner Tony Gehrig listens to Commissioner Dave Piepkorn speak about Gehrig's plan to cut the city's property taxes by 20-percent during a city commissioner's meeting at the Civic Center on Monday, July 20, 2015. Nick Wagner / The Forum

Property taxes are going up across the state – Fargo, notably, just approved a big hike which has many citizens upset – and predictably local leaders are already passing the buck.

These are people who will rant until blue in the face about local control, but try getting them to accept some local accountability for the choices they make.

I write about this topic in my print column today in which I start out noting that lawmakers deserve some blame for handling the property tax issue poorly in years past:

They chose to use a portion of budget surpluses driven by the oil and crop price boom of years past to buy down local property taxes.

A politically deft maneuver in the short term — it let the politicians of both parties crow about all the “property tax relief” they were doling out — but it was poor long-term policy. The only way it works is if boom-time tax revenues last forever.

Spoiler alert: Boom time tax revenues don’t actually last forever.

But lawmakers have ended the property tax buy downs (hopefully for good). Now it’s time to start holding local leaders responsible for the local budgeting decisions they make which drive up local property taxes:

For one thing, lawmakers didn’t just stop the property tax buy downs. They also took over local social service spending that was funded by property taxes, transferring it from local budgets to the state budget.

The social service take over isn’t as large a dollar amount as the property tax buy downs were, but it’s still a spending obligation that’s out of local budgets for the time being.

For another, why shouldn’t local governments tighten their belts in the same way state lawmakers did?

“I believe that the political [subdivisions] need to trim their budgets too,” Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, told me in an April interview on my radio show.

He’s right. Leaders like Wardner and Gov. Doug Burgum vowed to address the state’s post-oil boom budget short falls without raising taxes. They accomplished that goal.

The political circumstances which inspired the ill-advised property tax buy downs in the first place had everything to do with local leaders and their various lobbyists and pressure groups successfully convincing a large faction of the public that rising property taxes were a legislative problem. Lawmakers caved and jumped into the property tax game when they really should have left that local tax, levied by local governments to pay for local budgets, alone.

The time has come for local leaders to be responsible for property taxes. Short of abolishing the property tax, which North Dakota voters said no to overwhelmingly not so long ago, it’s the only way we’re going to see progress on this thorny issue.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from 1-2pm weekdays.

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