Friday, January 27, 2012
Steve Baron: Council Rates System Unfair & Inequitable
Now seems as good a time as any for central and local body governments to step back and consider how local government is funded and to consider the unfairness of the current system. I have two questions regarding Rates I feel should be given serious thought, rather than just continuing with what we already have simply because that's the way we have always done it.
Firstly, is it fair and equitable that only those residents/businesses that own properties, pay Rates out of the total working population? I would suggest that this load should be spread much wider given that far more people use the services a Council provides. Now I realise some of you will be quick to argue that even tenants pay Rates as part of their rent, so to speak. However, I would argue that in reality they do not. For years I personally managed a group of investment properties and I can tell you there were a number of times that Rates continued to increase but rents had to be reduced because of a depressed rental market. So in other words, even though the Council increased the Rates, we were unable to pass that increase (or even part of it) on to our tenants.
Secondly, is it fair and equitable to base a tax simply on the value of a property regardless of the services used or the people that live there? For example, Granny who lives alone may very well be paying more than a family of five who use far more services than her, because Granny lives in a more expensive home. That may sound fair enough to some, but it isn't Granny's fault the value of her home has increased exponentially because she has lived there for 40 years—but she still has to pay Rates based on the value of the property, even though she has a meagre income from government superannuation.
There are other options that could be considered. Poll taxes (tax per head) or Community Tax as it was known in the UK under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is one option. However, they were very unpopular and inefficient to collect. A Service Tax, or a local income tax, that operates separately from the national tax system has often been suggested, although this would also incur significant costs to collect. Perhaps a more equitable and simpler way to fund Council services would be through central government taxation which already funds a large amount of Council spending. This would simply mean raising national tax levels slightly, and spreading the load throughout society. If Council services were to become funded in this way a specific scientific formula would need to be designed to ensure fairness of distribution for Councils.
Regardless of how Councils are funded, another important consideration is how Councils allocate budgets. One option becoming ever more popular throughout the world, and often used by the Wanganui District Council, are referendums (well plebiscites actually—to be accurate). These allow ratepayers to prioritise Council spending and give residents more control over how their money is spent. Wanganui residents have had a say on, many issues including gang insignia, water softening, recycling options, the Splash Centre (pool) extension and also various options on Rate increases. These referendums have proved very popular, with referendum voting higher than the Council elections themselves. It is also interesting to learn from an empirical study by Professor John Matsusaka from the University of California which has shown that those American States that have the referendum system, spend up to 19% less than those who do not. The difference is that in the USA and Switzerland, these referendums are binding on local government and citizens even have the power to initiate referendums on issues that concern them.
To many, the current rating system is held in the same regard as the old TV licensing fee, it is hated and simply not fair. Council Rates are a regressive tax because they are not linked to the income of the ratepayer, nor by the amount of services used, therefore they are inherently unfair and should be replaced.
at 2:30 PM