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Are local government services for people or property?

The sudden public interest in property taxes and local governments makes me think about what services local governments provide and for what purposes. A recent report from the state’s Dept. of Local Government Finance, ‘Report on Expenditures per Capita,’ opened my eyes.
For example, of Indiana’s 92 counties, Clay County had the lowest county government expenditures per person at $215.62, while Newton County had the highest at $2,809.40. Of the 1,008 Indiana townships with populations ranging from 44 to 167,055, Wabash Township in Gibson County had the highest per capita spending with $694.44 per person.
There are 293 Indiana school corporations with student populations ranging from only 30 to as many as 38,018 students. The highest per-student expenditure was River Forest Community School Corp. in Lake County at $17,072.96, and the lowest in the state was Western School Corp. in Howard County at $7,460.01 per student.
Obviously, there is great variability in the level of services provided and many explanations for that variability. But I also wonder if it would make more sense to assess property taxes for services based on whether the services were relevant to the property.
Agriculture is different from other types of economic activity in that farmers are entirely dependent on land as a major component of our business cost. Farmers can’t farm without farmland. Arguably, farmland does benefit from police, fire, roads, judicial, county administration and other services. But farmland does not use services for education, welfare, libraries, parks, airports, cemeteries or many other services provided by local government.
To be fair, those are largely services for people not property. In the coming discussions about how we pay for government services, we should seriously consider whether the service is relevant to the property use and property type.
Ironically, many local government services create demand for more and larger property protection services. Specifically, schools, libraries and other governmental buildings don’t pay property taxes but do require increased police and fire protection services. Property taxpayers pay multiple times for those facilities: their initial construction, their debt service, and their ongoing maintenance and protection.
So, as we debate property taxes and local government services, I would ask our public policy decision-makers this question: Are local government services oriented more toward people or property? How we answer that question will directly influence how much property tax we will still be forced to pay.
Don Villwock is president of Indiana Farm Bureau.

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