“Equalized Assessed Value” and the tyranny of unasked questions

There is a well-known parable which goes like this.  Once, a man was walking along the river when he saw a small child struggling in the waves.  The man immediately jumped in and rescued the child, bringing her to shore.  But then he saw another child – he jumped back in, and cried out for help.  Others came, and soon the people realized that child after child was coming down the river.  The people formed a human chain, and rescued each and every child.  A woman came along, and seeing the rescue operation, started running upstream.  A rescuer called out, “hey, where are you going?”  The woman replied, “I’m going to stop whoever is throwing the kids in the river!”

I thought of this parable Tuesday night, while hearing the presentations before the school board on next year’s tax levy.  The board will vote at their next meeting if they wish to keep the levy the same – and decline the option to raise more money from property taxes.  But even leaving the levy the same will increase the rate paid by taxpayers, because the value of property continues to decline.  This is the dreaded EAV, or “Equalized Assessed Value.”  So residents will pay a higher rate, but yet the children who need more, not less, will get less.

I thought of this parable, too, when I read about cuts to basic human services, whether it  is the state of Illinois or the federal sequester.  And I thought of this parable when I read that the city needs to raise funds to tear-down or rehab abandoned properties.

We can spend our energy trying to rescue this situation.  That’s fine.  But we also need to ask ourselves two questions: who is throwing the children in the river?  And, to extend the analogy, why is the village on the other side of the river not helping?

The question of responsibility is vital.  Yes, some homeowners bought more than they should, and helped create the bubble.  Regulators, government officials, and watchdogs all looked the other way.  But who profited from the bubble?  Big banks.  Who got bailed out by taxpayers?  Big banks.  Who is making huge profits now, though the rest of us struggle?  Big banks, and the richest .01%.  Who owns these foreclosed properties?  Those same banks.  Why should the city pay to fix them, when banks own them!  We need to be asking this question, and our political leaders need to be doing what leaders in other communities are doing — insisting that the banks pay to rehab neighborhoods and clean up their mess.

And the question of fairness is essential, too.  If the children of one village are in trouble, and their parents and neighbors are rescuing them, but the children of another village are fine, do not the parents and neighbors of that community have a responsibility to the troubled children?  But the way that Illinois structures its school funding and tax system, inequality based on wealth and geography is exacerbated.

It is easy to understand this by comparing two school districts — both numbered 205.  In Rockford #205, the property tax rate for next year will be about $7 for every $100 of valuation.  The district will spend about $7,000 on instructional costs per student, with an average teacher salary of about $65,000.  The percentage of children with a free or reduced lunch is reported at 79%.

In Elmhurst #205, in the Chicago suburbs, the numbers tell a different story.  The property tax rate is just over $4 per $100.  They spend $8,000 per student, with an average salary of $75,000.  Their free/reduced percentage? 13.

How is this possibly fair?  Elmhurst residents pay a lower tax rate, but get more per student, despite their dramatically lower need.  (Sales taxes and incomes taxes in both communities are the same).

I admire those on the school board, in the classroom, and in homes and congregations who are rescuing as many children as they can.  Both individually and as a congregation, I’m trying do the same.  But we also need to be rushing upstream, and daring to ask the difficult questions.  Why is it that those who profited from this mess – Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs and the rest – aren’t fixing it?  Why is it that the wealthy of this state have a lower tax rate and better services than the middle class and the poor?

These specific questions raise a broader topic: are we responsible for each other, and especially for the most vulnerable among us?  Everything I know says yes.  I hope you will say yes too.  And I hope you will demand that we start acting like it.  Call your legislator.  Research the issues.  Speak up.  Don’t submit to the tyranny of the unasked question.