Why is everyone well-represented except the taxpayers?
By Michael Lewis
Who represents the taxpayers of Miami-Dade County?
Not most folks we elect, judging by moves to raise property tax rates 13% in the teeth of the worst recession of our lifetimes.
Last week, at the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce — what better place? — a business owner who'd read my July 30 column on the county's pending rate hike asked who represents him as a voter who also pays property taxes?
Could we establish some taxpayers league or association, he asked, to stand up for a distinct minority in Miami-Dade — because taxpayers are far fewer than half of all voters?
In theory, elected officials safeguard our interests. But do they really represent you well? It's unlikely that you'll shout "Yes, indeed!"
So in practice, who does stand up for you, Mr. and Ms. Taxpayer, in the halls of government?
Probably nobody. While lobbyists and highly vocal pressure groups represent every interest targeting public funds for a cause or need or desire, no organization fights for the unique needs of the people who must fund most of these groups' desires: the payers of property taxes.
Taxpayers as an entity are almost invisible. Elected officials see them as individuals, not as a group whose needs must be catered to.
Voters in general — as opposed to taxpayers — are represented here by the respected League of Women Voters. Elsewhere, groups also battle on behalf of the public — groups that for more than 100 years have been branded goo-goos, or good government guys. In the 1890s such groups shored up government in New York City against political machines.
But in Miami-Dade, where fewer than 600,000 persons are taxed to run government for 2.4 million, who represents the minority who are out of pocket for whatever government decides to do?
At county hall, property taxes are the lion's share of income. While almost everyone, including tourists, pays sales taxes and some pay for licenses or fees, property is king here.
Property tax supports 81% of spending from the county's general fund this year. The minor sources: sales tax, 4%; miscellaneous state revenues, 2%; gas tax, 5%; fees, 1%, carryover and interest, 4%; and other, 3%.
So the deep pockets upon which commissioners take aim are yours, Mr. and Ms. Taxpayer. And no colorful taxpayer T-shirts fill row upon row in the chambers when commissioners decide how much you'll pay next year.
Fewer than half of the county mayor's votes come from taxpayers. Some commissioners get more than 50% from taxpayers, others get very few. Unfortunately, it's an economic gulf — the better off a commissioner's district, the larger percentage of taxpayers represented.
So, is it somehow undemocratic or anti-egalitarian to think that those who pay the county's bills should be able to pressure elected officials at least as much as those who say they need the county's money because they can't pay?
And is it wrong for those who pay to want efficient government?
Elsewhere, the nation is thick with associations that watch out for taxpayers' wallets. Here's what some say they do:
"Founded in 1945, the San Diego County Taxpayers Association... is a watchdog organization that looks out for your tax dollars. [It] takes a leadership role in fiscal oversight of local government and aggressively resists unwarranted taxes and fees, discriminatory regulations and ill-advised public expenditures. We challenge local government at all levels to be accessible, responsive, efficient and fair."
For dues of $25 a year, the Lincoln, RI, Taxpayers Association "protects Lincoln by identifying problems and generating support to resolve them."
"Founded in 1937, the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit organization composed of taxpayers residing or doing business in Contra Costa County. It is exclusively funded by the dues and donations of its members. It accepts no government funds."
Some taxpayer groups are statewide, some countywide, some citywide. All become pressure groups for the interests of taxpayers, a vacuum here.
Should an association here function on the county level or city? Do we need more than one? Would they themselves become bureaucracies?
Could Miami-Dade taxpayers forming such a group overcome differences in political party, ethnicity and the special interests that all of us hold to some degree?
Could the group avoid meandering into support of one or another of the special interests that are already well-represented in this community? Could it stick to its knitting of knitting up a crazy-quilt community of taxpayers to simply watch the spending in local government?
Elected officials in the main wouldn't like that, because the last thing they want is to disturb a system that keeps electing them no matter what they do.
But if you've watched the county in action, it might please you to disrupt the status quo.
We'll be pleased to funnel expressions of interest in a taxpayers association to one or more organizers if they'll identify themselves to email@example.com — passing along names from each of you to the others.
Many taxpayers like my friend at the chamber are frustrated. Who will step up and organize to do something about it?