Wednesday, July 18

Sir, The Taxpayers Are Revolting

IF Monday--Day 47 of Homeowners Held Hostage by my slightly giddy reckoning--didn't exactly change the complexion of the great Property Tax debate it did at least emphasize it, as interested commenters of the Caucasian persuasion pointed at the (85% minority) Indianapolis Public Schools as a symbol, if not a major cause, of their woes. A woman protesting at the Governor's Former Residence told Channel 8 that "The streets are full of potholes and you can't send your kids to the public schools", while a gentleman explained to the Star that it wasn't the money so much as the poor return on the investment, noting that "Of all the things that chafe me the most over this is that 50 percent of that money, or in my case $10,000, goes to the Indianapolis Public Schools. This is a school system that graduates less than 35 percent of its kids."

We don't mean to point to this gratuitously. We don't exactly point with pride to the fact that the DoE thinks the graduation rate is 52%; it's still unacceptable. A lot of the sign-waving shown on teevee has singled out the new football stadium, which, like those potholes, isn't actually covered by property taxes. But then, feeling you've been overcharged at a restaurant doesn't preclude you from criticizing the service while you're at it. The main distinction here is that I know where the stadium is being built, but I'll be damned if I'm aware of any streets full of potholes in mid-July; perhaps the poor woman imagines the very existence of potholes is due to local taxes. In fact the public thoroughfares are well cared-for in these parts, if comparison to thirty years ago, when the city didn't own any snowplows and chuckholes sometimes lasted longer than paint, is any indication.

I'm not trying to make a point about racism, crypto- or otherwise. That is, as they say on Wall Street, already discounted. The reason these people pay property taxes to support Indianapolis Public Schools is not because they live in Indianapolis. It's because they live in Center Township. When the city annexed all the land out to the county line forty years ago it preserved the old township system with regard to schools, which preserved the old Indianapolis Public Schools boundaries, which preserved de facto segregation. It's the political legacy of the mayoral stint of Sinecured Senator Richard "I Know Iraq is a Disaster, But What Am I?" Lugar. People who live in million-dollar homes near the Governless Mansion do not send their children to public schools. in part because they wouldn't at any rate and in part because they've long since abandoned them to the poor and only give them a thought when the tax bill arrives. People whose personal finances dictate sending their children to public schools and "can't" have them rubbing elbows with brown elbows have long since fled the county altogether and crowded into McMansionland in the doughnut counties.

If we're better than we used to be at taking care of our streets, we're no better at conducting political debate. There's a fairly straightforward explanation for what's happened to Indiana's property taxes: the state Supreme Court found the assessment system unconstitutional; successive state legislatures found it more prudent, from a re-election standpoint, to punt the issue; a single-party gained control, including an incompetent, self-aggrandizing Governor who used the budget process to make himself look good; and most directly, the ill-considered abolition of the business inventory tax with no specification as to its replacement. Yet there's a continual drumbeat of "don't point fingers, just solve the problem," notably from the Indianapolis Star, as well as other Daniels die-hards who realize their man has fucked up Big Time. Daniels, who has been lauded--by no one so much as himself--for his "fearless" leadership, simply refused to have anything to do with the issue, hoping, perhaps, that astronomical local tax increases would gnaw a chunk from the man once considered his most likely '08 challenger, Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson. Now he sits on a state budget surplus, not to mention what he's raked in selling off taxpayer assets, and does his best Hamlet--assuming Hamlet was played by a 58-year-old with a comb-over (which he sometimes was) and assuming he tried to get his picture in the paper every day (which he didn't). Why shouldn't we point fingers? How do you fix a problem without knowing what caused it?

Say it again: the problem is the result of four years of shenanigans. The people who began protesting two weeks ago, when the tax bills arrived, are largely people who ignored what was going on as it was happening. They are, in other words, the irate father screaming about his teenaged daughter's pregnancy now that she's showing, when eight months ago he was too lazy to go find out why her bedsprings were making so much noise during a "study session". They are precisely the people who should have to listen to an argument now.


Jason said...


Morgan P. said...

Bravo, bravo, bravo... I'm from Chicago, which has many of the same public school problems you discussed, (and the same brilliantly named "doughnut ring" effect). The funny part about Chicago is that, for the past 15 years or so, they've been tearing down projects and "gentrifying" most of the lower income neighborhoods near the city, pushing minorities and the impoverished out to the suburbs with soaring property values and taxes. It'll be interesting to do a study of what happens to the suburban and city public schools in the next 10-20 years.