INSIGHTS, INFORMATION AND ACTIVITIES
An Open Letter to the Mayors of the Cities and Towns in the
Governing a community, any community, presents tremendous
challenges to elected officials, and the person who serves as mayor
is very much in the spotlight. His or her decisions and policies are
subject to constant scrutiny. Today, the challenges are as great or
greater than ever before because many people and most businesses are
apt not to have firm roots in any particular community. Businesses
come in search of markets and stay when the effort proves
profitable. People follow employment opportunities and -- when able
to choose -- they look at the other attributes of the places where
they might live, work and play.
As mayors working to retain existing residents and attract new
people in, you are certainly aware of the importance of safe
neighborhoods, good schools, useable parks, reliable mass transit,
bearable taxation and a welcoming climate for businesses. To a very
great extent, full employment results in these desired
characteristics. At the same time, a community must find ways to
fund all of the desired amenities when they are not now present.
This has proven to be an elusive goals for many cities and towns.
Common Ground members live and work in many of the communities you
serve. We want to stay and make our contribution to the quality of
life for our neighbors and our families. That is why we urge you to
think seriously about the way our municipal governments raise
revenue to pay for the public goods and services we believe are
necessary for our quality of life.
One perspective - the one that has driven public policy for a very
long time - is that the least harmful way to raise public revenue is
by taxing just about everything and everyone - but as moderately as
possible. Over time, government has imposed taxes on the wages of
every working person, on the homes and automobiles and other
personal assets of every resident, on the assets and gross revenue
and profits of every business, on every exchange of goods and
services, and even penalizing visitors by taxing stays in hotel
rooms. The result for many cities has been an ongoing loss of people
In place of self-sufficiency has come a perpetual dependency on
state and federal governments for revenue at a time when state and
federal elected officials have adopted the tenets of "new
federalism" that returns authority and responsibility to
communities to solve their own social and financial problems. On the
bright side, there is today a recognition that heavy taxation of
businesses and working people only serves to drive them away. People
who have options will not hesitate to abandon a city or region if
government is not doing the right things from their perspective.
Taxes are only one contributing factor to a high cost of living or
of doing business. With markets often global rather than national or
regional, a location to be desirable must allow businesses the
opportunity to compete internationally, absorb local costs of
producing goods or offering services and still make a profit for the
owners. The responsibility and challenge to our elected
representatives is to strike the right balance between the need for
revenue and the need for a healthy, nurturing economy.
A more deeply penetrating analysis than is the norm of how taxation
affects markets, investment decisions and the migration of people is
part of the educational mission of Common Ground U.S.A. and its
membership. Our research leads us to rather striking conclusions of
how the way we raise our public revenue drives economic and social
What cities have to offer most is location. Cities are where they
are because at some time in the past the location was advantageous:
an excellent harbor, a navigable river, rich farmland, mild weather,
the crossroads of natural trade routes. With the increase in
population coming to live in the same geography, locations come to
have exchange value. In fact, every location has some annual rental
value in the market place. This rental value is what people are
willing to give up from what they produce as payment for control
over a particular location.
In our cities the most valuable locations are usually in or near
the central business districts. Values tend to decline the further
away from the center one goes (until you get close to another
business district or a riverfront or ocean beach or mountain vista).
An important practical observation is that this location rental
value grows or falls independent of what any individual does with a
location. Location value is created by aggregate public and private
investment. As such, this value ought to be - we would say "needs"
to be -- fully captured by government to pay for public goods and
services. When, as is largely the case, location rental values are
only lightly taxed, the market recognizes the net rental value as "imputed
income" to the holder of the land deed. This income stream is
capitalized into a selling price. Here is a simple example. Say a
parcel of land can be leased for $10,000 a year and a market rate of
return on investments is 10%. The $10,000 in rental income is
capitalized, at 10%, into a selling price of $100,000 for that
parcel. However, if location rents are rising every year, the owner
will try to capture this future increase in income by charging a
price greater than "current value" would suggest.
The lower the annual tax in relation to location rental value, the
greater is the imputed income to be capitalized. Thus, a city with a
low effective tax rate on location rental values will experience
high levels of land hoarding and speculation, as well as land
markets with a strong tendency to spiral upwards rapidly, then crash
when businesses can no longer afford to absorb the higher costs of
doing business triggered by the speculative land market. Strangely,
we have come to accept these dynamics as the unfortunate
consequences of a market economy, of the business cycle, when
rational public policy could attack the problem at its core.
Our mission to provide objective and thoughtful analysis to our
mayors, urging you to take the lead in removing one of the most
serious impediments to the economic health of our cities by looking
to location rental values as the primary source of public revenue
and removing the burden of taxation from the productive activities
in which we engage.
Taxing (i.e., collecting) location rental values brings in revenue,
discourages land speculation and pressures those who own land
parcels to improve them according to "highest and best use"
as dictated by the market. Zoning and planning measures are
important factors in these investment decisions, and current
thinking is to encourage mixed-use development so that people can
live, work and play in the same geography - reducing our dependency
on the automobile and paving the way to a cleaner environment. When
the land owner then makes an investment in a home or office building
or store - improving the land parcel to its highest and best use -
the best thing the city can do is exempt these assets from taxation.
Selective and limited abatements have been employed for decades.
Exempting all property improvements from taxation simply extends
this wise policy to all property owners. Never again should anyone
be penalized by an increase in their taxes as a result of
constructing a new building or renovating an old one.
The same logic applies to taxes on the wages and salaries of
working people and on the sales of goods. These forms of taxation
started out at very low levels and have been increased over time,
often in response to revenue shortfalls. The long-term impact of
these measures has been to drive people and businesses to lower (or
no) tax geographies. All across the United States, people live in
one state because there are lower real estate taxes, work across a
border because the wage taxes are lower and shop in another state
because there are no sales taxes. People act rationally, even if our
tax policies are not.
Every city or town would benefit, we believe, by the measures we
have described. Perhaps more to the point, the people who work and
produce and contribute to the economic and social health of our
communities will be rewarded - as they should - for doing so. Those
who enjoy the privilege of controlling the use of the most desirable
and potentially profitable locations in our communities will,
finally, pay for this privilege.
The Revenue Source is Under Our Feet
The real estate tax is a combination
of fused levies on buildings and improvements, and on site value.
Buildings are assessed at market value, cost of reproduction, and
depreciated value by aging. Taxing improvements heavily, as does the
present property tax, discourages free enterprise from providing
enough rehabilitated and rebuilt housing in older city areas.
Individual building investment in declining older neighborhoods is
devalued when an entire neighborhood has no incentive to renew
itself with private funds.
In cities, studies have shown that presently two-thirds to
three-fourths of the "property tax" falls on buildings and
improvements. Remodeling, rehabbing, adding an extra family room or
a garage punishes the property owner with a higher assessment and
consequently a higher property tax. Small wonder older city housing
is often not in the best shape when its upwardly mobile owner moves
to the suburbs!
The other part of the fused property tax is the tax on land
values. Unfortunately, the site under run-down housing is assessed
as a residual of a deteriorating building. Therein is a major
revenue source problem!
Urban site value is created by increased population bidding for
sites to build homes, offices, shops, or factories. Zoning decreed
by the local government also adds value to sites. Collectively, the
community taxes itself to pay for municipal services (e.g. police,
fire, etc.) and amenities (e.g. parks) and for cement infrastructure
(sewer mains, etc.) Location value of any site is further influenced
by the private investment of other individuals in the neighborhood
or shopping district.
The present system of low taxes on the site value of urban land
encourages underutilization and speculatively withholding of land
sites from the market. Increasing taxes on unused (vacant lots) and
underused (with obsolete buildings) sites is a prod for the owners
to put these sites to productive use or sell them to others who
Site value taxation stimulates the city to redevelop and allows
city services thus to be more economically administered and/or
extended in a more compactly developed city. Almost all municipal
costs — water supply, sewage disposal, garbage collection,
street maintenance, school busing — are increased by distance.
Site value taxation is revenue neutral in providing funds for
local budget needs. Heavier site value taxation takes back for the
community the increase in value of land which the community created.
A commensurate decrease in the property tax levied on buildings and
improvements provides the incentive for private rehabilitation and
rebuilding. The potential for revenue increases from site value
taxation exists which, coupled with corresponding decreases in other
forms of taxation — as benefits occur from economic growth
(such as income taxes, sales taxes, etc.), preserves that
|The nation is looking for tax reform
that will reduce the national debt, encourage production, reduce
unemployment and under-employment, and put our public finances on
a business-like basis, providing sufficient revenue without
indebting future generations.
The nation is looking for a method to provide low-cost housing
and clean up urban slum areas without government housing
The nation is looking for a way to reduce urban sprawl with its
waste of farm land and its public cost for providing urban
services and its private costs in time and fuel consumed in