Remember tax base sharing?
South Berkshires North Berkshires
Popularized by Myron Orfield and others in the late 1990s, regional tax base sharing (TBS) is one of those ideas that seem logical, fair, and efficient on the surface. The idea is pretty simple: take an area like Baltimore city and its surrounding suburbs and equalize the tax burden by allocating property tax revenues across municipal and county boundaries. The typical citizen will immediately sense dissonance in the proposal, and react accordingly.
In 1995, the Greater Baltimore Committee brought in Orfield and David Rusk to move the idea of TBS into public debate. UrbanTools was in attendance, and can attest that people of good faith nodded in agreement but in sotto voce agreed with one another: "It'll be a cold day in…” before that happens.
In point of fact, there have been exactly 2 TBS arrangements in the US since the idea launched so long ago: land preservation project in the New Jersey Meadowlands, and the Twin Cities metropolitan region in Minnesota. Problem with TBS may be that no one wants to share. It's hard to tell a suburb that their very existence once depended upon the city, and harder still to say that we are one community. Perhaps there's a better way.
It's hard to get any kind of tax increase much less a regional tax increase implemented. The Atlanta Georgia region just voted down a sales tax hike that would've funded maintenance and new infrastructure for mass transit. People just couldn't see any tie-in between commercial activity and mass transit. Many suburbanites simply thought helping out the urban core was throwing good money after bad.
What regions do have in common however are networks of infrastructure whether they are roads, sewers, mass transit or park systems. The relationship from costs then to benefits, then to value (Civic ROI) is much less vague and therefore less deniable. A recent object of UrbanTools research has been the region of Western Massachusetts, formerly known as Berkshire County.
Extremes of wealth and poverty and growth and decay are stark. They also reflect the 180° turn that most of those towns have taken since the end of the industrial era. UrbanTools has already explored some of the paradoxes involved. As the following map indicates, using market value data from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (2012), we see that towns once storied for their regional economic strength – Pittsfield, Adams, and North Adams - have a very weak tax base per capita upon which to pay for services. Meanwhile formally bucolic small towns with their cutesy-ness revealed in all their glory – think of Great Barrington, Stockbridge and Lenox - revel in large tax bases and spend freely for services all towns ought to enjoy. Generally, this is the result of a perfect storm of high earning Bostonians and New Yorkers looking for a place to summer, winter, and leaf peep
The community created land value from North Adams to Great Barrington is the only thing that can rationally and practically tie them at least somewhat together. In so doing, a small surcharge on assessed and taxable land values can provide a sense of common cause and destiny. By relying on land values, the resentment of those who have been able to invest their labor and capital into their communities can still keep what is theirs.
There is no free lunch however.The responsibility of the poorer towns to become part of this better and bigger network is to adopt tax policies that do not discourage labor and capital investment at all: the Universal Abatement, in other words the land value tax. Soon enough, they will hold their own and contribute more to the Community Chest (no apologies to the game of Monopoly).