Taxes, Bonds And Missoula’s Screwed Up Priorities

by William Skink

It appears the gap between what city/county leaders say about wanting to address affordable housing and the actions taken that undermine those stated intentions has gotten big enough that some truth is starting to leak out. At least that’s how I interpret Jean Curtiss (who is on her way out of the County Commissioner’s office) when she had this to say earlier this week:

While commissioners agreed to place the measure before voters, they warned that increases in property taxes were reaching a breaking point, and that the bond’s timing may be misplaced given deep cuts to state social programs and other community needs.

“I believe Missoula County must change how we judge whether to put things on the ballot,” said Commissioner Jean Curtiss. “We have to address critical issues, life-and-death issues, quality-of-life issues – daily things like food, shelter and mental health. The state is not taking leadership on these issues.”

It’s easier for Jean Curtiss to say this because she’s a political short-timer now. That said, I’m still glad she said it. What another Commissioner had to say, on the other hand, is to repeat a persistent complaint I’ve heard before—that we only have one funding mechanism to rely on, and that’s property taxes:

“We need to diversify our income,” said Commissioner Cola Rowley. “It’s completely unsustainable to only have a one-legged stool of property taxes to sustain all the things that our community and our county needs. It’s getting to the breaking point, where something is going to have to give.”

What is not explicitly stated here, but heavily implied, is the County’s continued desire to create another funding stream, like a local option sales tax. If enacted, this would be a regressive tax that would disproportionally negatively impact the poor. But don’t take my word for it:

Of the three main forms of state taxes—sales, property, and income—the sales tax hurts the poor most, says Gardner. State sales taxes are highly “regressive,” he says. That is, they end up taking a bigger chunk of change from people that have smaller sums of money and slower income growth.

Let’s say that a rich person and a poor person each spend $100 on taxable grocery items. This $100 expenditure—and the sales tax on that $100—both deal heavier blows on the poor person’s income because it’s smaller. The report backs up this hypothetical example: as a share of their income, the poor pay a 7 percent rate on sales and excise taxes, while middle-income families pay 4.7 percent rate, and the wealthy pay less than one percent, on average.

Creating another funding stream through a regressive sales tax is not the only option County Commissioners and City Council have in addressing fiscal concerns. There is a powerful concept that I have developed as a parent of 3 children that I would like to share with Missoula’s political leadership, and that’s the concept of saying ‘no’.

I do it all the time, saying no. And trust me, it works. You see, managing our family’s resources comes with a responsibility to prioritize food and shelter over toy cars and Lego sets. If I didn’t do that, and my kids were malnourished, I would be held accountable and The State could take my kids away.

Government doesn’t have that same accountability. The corpses of homeless people can pile up on the doorstep of City Hall and no one in a position of authority will have the power of the purse taken away from them, let alone be thrown into a jail cell for gross negligence.

If “diversifying income” means pushing for a local sales tax I hope we get a clear explanation of why our political leadership thinks increasing the tax burden on the poor is going to help them. This is coming from the same leadership who will be supporting a regressive sin tax on tobacco to keep Medicaid expansion in Montana alive.

Maybe courting business and trying to become an in-land replica of Silicon Valley makes it difficult to envision implementing a tax scheme that isn’t calibrated to negatively impact those at the bottom. Besides, what are those at the bottom going to do about it if local government gets the sales tax it craves? Threaten to stop making political donations? Open that new tech business in Bozeman instead of Missoula?

The only financial leverage the poor have is the increasing cost of jailing and hospitalizing the impoverished segments of this demographic put increasingly into crisis as the support net gets shredded.

Are those increasing costs an acceptable consequence of political decisions being made, making the situation worse?

It appears so.

Please, Missoula, prove me wrong.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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