The city of Eugene needs money. Its roads are falling into a pothole of disrepair. It’s grown so large, the Eugene City Council can no longer veer to avoid it. So the game begins: finding clever ways to raise taxes without seeming to be raising taxes.
Taxes were not always anathema. Once upon a time, they represented the value of a developed society. But tax revolts in the 1970s shifted the conversations about government funding from value to cost. A Mercedes may offer good value, but not if you can’t afford it. How much government we can afford (cost) became more important than whether government was doing a good job (value).
Property taxes were targeted first. Local government loves property taxes, in part because we don’t notice them. Most homeowners’ banks maintain an escrow account to pay the bill, adding a bit to each month’s mortgage payment. Responding to the plight of senior citizens, whose homes’ values (and taxes) began to outstrip their fixed incomes, a cap on property taxes won popular support, and cities went scrounging.
Gas taxes provide a sensible way to pay for roads, except that every street corner informs us of the current price of a gallon, down to nine tenths of a penny. A tax on gasoline looks like a tax on gasoline, noticed by consumers and sure to excite the petroleum distributors. So gas taxes haven’t been raised in a generation.
Cities continue hunting for invisible ways to collect taxes.
Beneath the roads are sewers, so a stormwater fee can be charged to every home with running water. Wires to carry electricity and cable television share the streetscape. Excise taxes can be added to those bills too.
Those in the building trades know too well that permit fees for new construction have been set to recover the “true costs” of each new building or home improvement. You can’t add an extra toilet to your floor plan without contributing toward the next city park. Maybe those fees are fair and maybe they’re not, but we used to call them taxes.
Raising a tax and calling it a fee is like painting stripes on a donkey and calling it a zebra.
Trash collectors are next, because they’re already halfway to being tax collectors. They collect. Garbage trucks are large and unattractive. They use the roads, often while we’re heading for work, so making them collect road taxes has a certain logic to it.
I called Sanipac’s General Manager Rick Wichmann to get his take. “Our goal is to keep our customers happy, and we know we’ve done that when we don’t hear from them.”
Government wants to collect taxes the way trash haulers used to collect our trash: quietly and in the dead of night.
When I was a child, the trash was put at the curb at night, and in the morning, the trash was gone. Disposal was mythical. Trash haulers were like tooth fairies, but with heavy machinery.
A few years ago, Eugene passed a noise ordinance that bans garbage trucks from residential neighborhoods until 7 AM. Sometimes they clog a morning commute. Nobody will likely stand in the way of this plan to collect road taxes by adding an extra line on everybody’s trash collection bill. Trash has no lobbyists.
But if somebody wanted to make the point that a tax is a tax is a tax, here’s a plan.
Send a separate bill each month to each customer with only the city tax you’ve been deputized to collect. That would be about 38,000 addresses for Sanipac, at a cost of more than $10,000 per month. I’ll bet Eugene Water and Electric Board would share the mailing cost if they could move the taxes they collect off their own monthly bills. Phone companies would follow too.
Once taxes are no longer be hidden from view, the real conversation about how much government we want can begin. Send every citizen a monthly bill that takes all the money being collected on behalf of the city and puts it all in one place — collecting the collections.
We must restore our trust in government. Sending everyone an honest bill each month would be a good start.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes for The Register-Guard each Friday. He blogs here and readers can follow him at www.twitter.com/dksez.