The Taxman Came, And He Billed Me in Ethics
Posted by whforums on July 16, 2008
So, like the rest of you, I got my tax bill this past weekend. 2 cars and one house later, we’re feeling the pinch. We’ve got an ’03 Corrola (which seems to me to be taxed reasonably) and ’07 Prius (which is taxed at an out-of-this-world rate) and an oldish, smallish house (we’re raised ranch people, not McMansion people), which I also think is taxed pretty reasonably. If you’re living in more house than you can afford, or if you’re living in a house you can just barely afford, or if you’ve recently experienced a significant drop in income, I can see how these property taxes could really push you to the brink.
I guess I’m just sort of conflicted about our current situation, West Hartford. When I look at the national sub-prime fiasco – the over-valuation of homes and the predatory lending –there’s an undeniable voice (a cynical, nasty voice I don’t like very much) in the back of my head that says “If you can’t afford the taxes on your house, you shouldn’t have bought the damn house.” But I also recognize that tax rates are literally forcing long-standing residents out of our town, that a house that was once affordable for a family or couple no longer is. And of course by living in a place for a long time – whether it’s a home or a town – you take ownership over that place (it becomes yours, in deed and idea). That taxes (alongside ARMs and crashing portfolios) are forcing some folks out of town is a shame – while my wife and I are living within our means at the moment (as soon as I write that the image of the tax bill for the Prius floats before my eyes), it’s certainly true that, across the crooked, potholed roads of our lives, our means (and our taxes) will always be in flux.
Here’s a confession: I grew up in West Hartford, and when I was 18, I took off and said I “I’m never coming back.” As far as I was concerned West Hartford was snobby and stuck-up – a town where the only thing more difficult than starting a conversation was finding a way not to be judged. I came back to West Hartford 3 years ago (after 10 years away – it’s a long, non-bloggy kind of story) and found a town that, via the services it provides, really does try its best to take care of its residents. And beyond our diversity – which is probably our town’s greatest strength (as much as some love to tout our bond rating) – it’s really our services that make West Hartford a wonderful place to live (and to raise kids). We have 6 wonderful parks (and, incidentally, 6 pools), we have responsible police (and, I might add, a day-to-day safety we take for granted), we have a great fire department, lights-out teachers, three great public libraries (with great librarians) and two senior centers. In other words, we complain a lot, but, most days, I feel like we’re getting our money’s worth.
And I could easily end this post with that optimistic feeling. I mean, it’s genuine. I could write:
“So, like anybody else, while I’m writing checks to the town this month, I’m not going to be very happy (I’m cheap, ok – I’m one of those “add water to the ketchup to get all of it out” people. I use a bar of soap to its molecular level). At the same time, the taxes we pay aren’t just taxes … they’re fees for services rendered. And while we can certainly have an argument about whether the cliché “you get what you pay for” applies to government spending, when I look at my total half-assessment on my property taxes (there’s that Prius bill again, floating behind my eyes), I still feel like, in West Hartford, I’m getting good value for my money.”
And you know what? I really believe that.
But it’s romanticism all the same, and a kind of romanticism I can only allow myself to believe so far. And while I love West Hartford, and while I’m currently able to pay my taxes and take advantage of town services, I can’t ignore the fact that not everyone is so fortunate. And so, looking at my tax bills, I’m left with a simple, but I think difficult, ethical question:
To what degree are you and I responsible to help those who find themselves being priced out of town (whether through their own poor planning or through unpredictable financial circumstances), and, if we are responsible (we are all responsible for our neighbors, yes?), what on earth do we do about it? Where do we draw the line between the services that make our town a wonderful place to live and the ethical compulsion to make sure that those who want to live here can live here?
More simply: My taxes? They’re not too high. They’re fine. But Willy Loman’s long standing point resounds today as much as it did in 1949; “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away …”