Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Highest-tax county

Hamilton Co.: We're No. One!

We can't say we haven't been warned again. Auditor Dusty Rhodes' annual financial report to the citizens lays it out in the most lucid terms yet: Not only do Hamilton County residents pay the highest property taxes compared to neighboring counties and Ohio's other big metropolitan counties, but fewer Hamilton County taxpayers are left to pay those rising taxes. Since 1993, residential property taxes grew about 66 percent while the county lost almost 40,000 residents - a 4.5 percent drop.

City and county officials need to rein in special levy requests, shrink the size of government and hold spending to basic services. But despite the dubious distinction as the highest tax county, where's the sense of urgency to reform?

High taxes are not the only reason people leave Hamilton County, but the auditor's graph comparing 2002 per-person property tax billings show what Hamilton County is up against in trying to reverse the flight of taxpayers to outer-belt fast-growth counties. Hamilton County billed $175 property taxes per person versus $79 for Butler, $81 for Clermont and only $30 for Warren County. Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) topped out at $157, Franklin (Columbus) at $154 and Montgomery (Dayton) at $141.

Democrat Rhodes is that rare official willing to say out loud: "It costs too much to live here." He shrunk his own staff from 174 when he took office to less than 135 today. He blasts government's "culture of accommodation" which funds "anyone with a story to tell or a gimmick to sell."

Republican Commissioner Phil Heimlich wants to use Rhodes' report to set county goals for years to come. He plans to ask the commissioners and the Tax Levy Review Committee to commit to holding spending and tax growth no higher than the rate of inflation. He wants the county to follow up with its own annual report cards. Good idea. Taxpayers deserve to know the combined hit from property taxes and if the county is meeting its budget goals.

Rhodes' report pegs the schools' bite of residential property taxes at 59 percent. His charts show school district by district property tax cost per $100,000 home - with Finneytown highest at $1,375 and Indian Hill lowest at $713. Schools also receive revenue from commercial property taxes and other sources. One graph shows district spending per pupil - with Southwest at $6,891, Cincinnati at $9,982 and Lockland highest at $12,875. The auditor's report was included as a supplement in Saturday's Enquirer and Post, and is available on the Web site www.hamiltoncountyauditor.org

Even the Ohio Supreme Court in the case of schools faulted the state's over-reliance on property taxes. Voters and public officials need to say no to new taxes and overspending if Hamilton County is ever to cede the highest-tax title to some place else.

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