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Published: 10/14/2012 - Updated: 1 year ago

Toledo tax crapshoot: Natural seven or snake eyes?

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

Lucky seven? We’ll find out soon.

If you’ve looked at the fall ballot, you know that voters in the city and school district of Toledo will decide seven property tax issues, either increases or renewals. Five of these levies also are before suburban Lucas County voters.

The community institutions behind the tax proposals fall into three categories: education (Toledo Public Schools, Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, Imagination Station), recreation (Metroparks of the Toledo Area, city of Toledo parks), and human services (Lucas County Children Services, Lucas County Mental Health and Recovery Services). These public bodies do things that individual citizens can’t do or pay for themselves, at least not as easily or effectively.

If voters approve all seven proposals, the levies would cost a Toledo resident who owns a $100,000 home nearly $389 a year. The net tax increases would total about $284; the TPS levy accounts for more than half of that.

You can try to minimize the impact by expressing these amounts in monthly or weekly or daily terms. But they still add up to an appreciable chunk of change.

The Blade has announced its support for six of the levies; we’ll state our position on the city parks proposal this week. In our judgment, the institutions that seek the millages are doing essential work reasonably — and often admirably — well.

But still — seven taxes, amid a recession that refuses to go away? And these aren’t all: Plenty of other communities, school districts, fire departments, parks authorities, and senior centers in the Toledo area also are seeking levies this year.

The proliferation of tax requests isn’t a coincidence. The Great Recession continues to afflict local public agencies no less than private households. Money coming in — for these institutions, from revenue on a shrunken property tax base — is down, even as public demands for the services they provide have grown.

At the same time, the prices of the things they buy continue to rise, even after they have reduced staff, gotten pay concessions from remaining employees, curtailed programs and services, and taken other cost-cutting measures. If they get federal aid, it’s decreased too.

Gov. John Kasich and lawmakers in the Republican-controlled General Assembly — many of whom are up for re-election this year — never tire of taking credit for balancing the state budget without raising taxes. They’re less eager to remind you how they did it: among other things, by slashing billions of dollars in state aid to public schools and local governments, even as they cut taxes for the richest Ohioans.

It isn’t just a problem in our area. The liberal advocacy group Innovation Ohio reports that school districts in five out of six Ohio counties are asking voters for new taxes this fall. These 124 proposed tax increases, out of 194 school levies overall, are the most since November, 2008.

Over the past five years, according to the analysis, voters across the state approved more than nine of every 10 school millage renewals. But they rejected more than two-thirds of school districts’ requests for new money.

Innovation Ohio president Janetta King, who was policy director for former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, accuses Mr. Kasich of running a “budgetary shell game” — making the state’s revenue shortfall disappear by shifting it to local taxpayers. Sooner or later, she says, these taxpayers will “wake up and realize they’ve been had.”

Not only struggling urban school districts such as Toledo, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Akron, and Youngstown are pleading with voters to pass levies this year. In Lucas and Wood counties, such relatively better-off districts as Ottawa Hills, Perrysburg, Anthony Wayne, and Bowling Green also are seeking renewed or higher taxes.

The situation is much the same for other local governments and agencies. They acknowledge the danger of “ballot fatigue” — that disgruntled, hard-pressed taxpayers will say no to all millage requests, especially if they conclude that they won’t benefit personally and immediately.

Maybe you never set foot in a public library or park (try it — you don’t know what you’re missing). Maybe you don’t have children in public school. Maybe your family has had the good fortune to be spared the pain of mental illness, child abuse, or alcohol or drug addiction.

So why should you care? Especially when times are still tough, and you have trouble paying your own bills, you can argue that you can’t worry about paying somebody else’s too. I get that.

If you belong to the I-got-mine, taxation-is-theft crowd, nothing is likely to persuade you as you sip your tea. But those of us who are lucky enough to have weathered the recession a bit better than many of our neighbors might consider this bottom-line reality:

The quality of public services and amenities, notably schools, is one of the first things potential employers and residents look at when they consider moving to the Toledo area. Employers create jobs. New residents pay taxes. These things help preserve and elevate the value of property — including yours.

We can pay now to educate and protect this community’s children, and to help keep ourselves and our neighbors physically active and mentally sound. Or we’ll all pay a lot more down the road — in costs of crime, prisons, and medical care, in missed opportunities for high-skill, high-paying jobs, in wasted human potential — because of our refusal to do so.

Are you able and willing to contribute to an investment in our community’s health and knowledge, with the favorable prospect — if not an immediate guarantee — of a direct return? That’s the question each of us must answer as we vote this fall.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade. Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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