Opinion

Ballot measures a lot like word problems

The arithmetic most of us learned in elementary school will come in handy during the next few months as we decide how to vote on several issues.

Who would have thought the “word problems” that occasionally stumped us in the first few grades would appear later in our lives in the form of ballot propositions?

When property taxes increase faster than personal income, some people seem to be surprised and more than a little confused about how it happened.

It usually happened in one or both of two ways. Voters didn’t figure out the arithmetic problems presented to them on the ballot before voting and/or they didn’t figure out the impact of their elected representatives’ tax decisions before deciding whether to re-elect them.

Consider the Fire District 7 levy lid lift which will appear on the ballot this fall. The actual numbers involved in calculating the effect of approving the levy lid lift are so big as to defy the ability of most people to imagine, since total property valuation within the district exceeds $3.9 billion.

Faced with such large numbers, understanding what would actually result from approving the ballot proposition could probably best be accomplished by using much smaller numbers to demonstrate how the arithmetic works.

When a property tax question is put on the ballot, it can be described in one of two ways. Either the voters are asked to approve a higher tax rate or they are asked to approve a total amount of revenue to be collected (leaving the tax rate to be calculated later, when the total assessed value of property in the taxing district is determined).

The Fire District 7 ballot proposition is stated as a tax rate the voters are asked to approve, namely $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

No matter which way the problem is stated, understanding the proposal requires little more than realizing that 5 multiplied by 2 produces a result which is 25 percent bigger than 4 multiplied by 2.

If the tax rate (represented in this hypothetical by the number 2) remains the same from one year to the next, the tax goes up at the same rate as the assessed property valuation (represented by 4 for this year and 5 next year).

That’s not the end of it, since there is a little more to the problem. When both the assessed value and the tax rate increase, the resulting tax will increase even more.

In this simplified hypothetical, increase the tax rate from 2 to 3 while the valuation goes from 4 to 5, and the resulting tax increase is 87.5 percent.

The only way to keep the property tax increase from being as large or larger than the increase in assessed property values is to reduce the tax rate.

For the Fire District 7 ballot proposition, both the total assessed property valuation and the tax rate would increase for tax year 2005.

The county assessor’s office estimates an increase of at least 10 percent in total property valuation. The lid lift would increase the tax rate from this year’s $1.40 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $1.50 — a little more than a 7 percent increase in the tax rate.

If the voters approve the levy lid lift, property taxes collected by Fire District 7 for the support of fire protection operations would increase by more than 17 percent.

Now that may be an appropriate increase, if there is a valid need for it.

Using the arithmetic most of us learned in elementary school, voters ought to be able to grasp the magnitude of the proposed increase and to insist on an explanation of the need for such a large increase.

So far, the fire district has offered an explanation which is the best illustration I’ve seen of what it means to “beg the question.”

Rather than explain why past and future revenue increases without a levy lid lift aren’t sufficient to maintain adequate fire protection services, the fire district’s explanation assumes they are not sufficient, then proceeds to explain how insurance premiums would go up because of that insufficiency.

The fire district has also done something your elementary school teachers probably wouldn’t have done to such an extent. Word problems sometimes include information that isn’t relevant to the solution to test your ability to pick out the information you need to solve the problem, but they don’t usually omit needed information.

The fire district’s explanations have done both. The numbers of service calls have included both responses to reported fires and requested emergency medical services without separately stating the numbers of service calls responding to reported fires.

Increases in service calls during the past few years have been stated, but the revenue increases during those years have not been included in the explanation.

Since the upcoming ballot proposition is not an Emergency Medical Services levy, it seems necessary to know the number of fire protection service calls if one is to understand whether there is a valid need for such a large increase in tax revenues to pay for fire protection.

The question is whether the existing limit on property tax increases is too low to pay for adequate fire protection, so it is surely necessary to know how much the fire district’s total revenue has increased over the past few years — not just how much its total service calls have increased.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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