Sunday Forum: In praise of property taxes

Why should Pennsylvania subsidize seniors to stay in their family homes when they ought to downsize? asks writer MARK E. DIXON

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Before I explain why Pennsylvania should abandon its destructive and demagogic quest to reduce property taxes, let me tell you about my parents.

Mom and Dad have lived in the same house since the Eisenhower administration. In 1958, they owned a two-bedroom ranch when a ... ahem ... failure of birth control produced my kid sister and a need for more space. Construction began the following spring and, in December 1959, our family of five moved into a four-bedroom colonial with French pretensions.

My brother, sister and I were gone by the mid-1970s, but the shrines to our childhoods remain. My sister's room is still the same pink "princess" chamber that Mom decorated nearly a half century ago, with a gilded crown-shaped wall-hanging over her bed. In the upstairs room I shared with my brother, the blankets printed with images from NASA's Gemini program remain on the bed. A model of the frigate "Constitution" that I built in the summer of '68 is still on the dresser.

Anita Dufalla, Post-Gazette
Click photo for larger image.   

Mark E. Dixon is a writer and editor who lives in Wayne, Pa. (


Mom and Dad don't go upstairs much anymore. They're 84. Mom has had both hips replaced, but she still has pain and avoids the stairs. She doesn't drive. Dad, a retired physician, mostly takes care of Mom. He'd love to sell the place and move into a retirement community. But Mom will have none of it. So, he continues to rake the leaves, mow the grass and shovel the snow.

A retired physician, Dad has had an irregular heartbeat for years. Eventually, he predicts, he will simply fall over from a stroke -- dying quickly if he's lucky, slowly if he's not. Then, Mom will cling ever more tightly to her house. Her own mother lived to be 98, so it's perfectly possible that Mom will remain there until her children are in their 70s -- while voting against every proposal to increase school millage. Someday, of course, one of us will identify her body for the EMTs.

Welcome to the reality that lies beneath the promises of politicians like Ed Rendell to lower property taxes. More than any other single wedge issue, the notion that Pennsylvania should enable senior citizens to avoid the natural end-of-life imperative to downsize has been used to sell the state lottery and, more recently, the slot-box casinos now on their way.

Currently, the Pennsylvania Lottery brags of generating $123.1 million annually to reduce seniors' property taxes -- $383, on average, for more than 320,000 households. In 2006, Gov. Rendell signed Act 1, which provides a way for school districts to relieve property taxes by raising income taxes. The governor also promised that the casinos will provide $1 billion a year to cut property taxes and that "seniors will get the most significant property tax relief."

Scratch a bit deeper, I suspect, and it would become apparent that helping seniors is mostly sophistry. What concerns too many of us is lower property taxes for ourselves. But spending less for our children's education is not a worthy goal, so it helps to dress it up in a cause that sounds noble.

Still, the property tax remains the best way to fund schools. It hits everyone, which is the definition of a good tax. Homeowners and renters, we all pay. And money raised locally is controlled locally. Do you really want your schools' funding -- and, inevitably, their curricula and textbooks -- chosen in Harrisburg or, worse, Washington? ("Sure, senator, I'll vote for your bridge-to-nowhere if you vote for my bill that adopts a national creationist biology text.") Me neither.

Still, the seniors myth has clout in a state with the second-oldest proportion of elderly after Florida. So, let's knock it down.

Keeping seniors in homes larger than they need, or can afford, or can care for, serves no social benefit and deserves no public subsidy. After a lifetime of work and raising a family, a house is an asset that seniors can sell and then live on the proceeds in smaller quarters. It is not the state's job to spend public revenue to help seniors hold onto assets that will only enrich their heirs. (Don't look to me to reimburse the commonwealth when my siblings and I split Mom's estate.)

Nor is it the state's job to fund a museum to my past. Visiting a house with rotary phones -- but no computer access or cable TV -- amuses my daughters (for brief periods) but do you really want to pay for that?

Earlier this month, voters across Pennsylvania overwhelmingly rejected Rendell's Act 1 tax-switching scheme. In my district, 88 percent of voters shot it down.

So, Ed? You have an out. Respect the people and drop this issue now.

Pennsylvanians? It's time to stop whining and pay the taxes that educate our children. Denying this basic responsibility rewards political hacks and will inevitably hurt our children.

And Mom? Dad? It's time to sell.


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