It’s unfair, but it is what it is

I’ve never been a big fan of the operating taxes that Michigan school districts levy on non-homestead properties because in many cases, they constitute taxation without representation, and they’re flat-out discriminatory.

The fact is a person who owns non-homestead property in a school district in which he or she does not live cannot vote on these millages.

They’re required to pay these taxes and risk losing their property if they don’t, but they have absolutely no voice at the ballot box when it comes to renewing or increasing them.

That’s just plain wrong. Taxation without representation was wrong when the British did it to the colonists and it’s still wrong today.

It’s also wrong that the majority of people who get to vote on these taxes do not own non-homestead property in their school district and are therefore not subject to this millage.

Why should a majority of people be able to vote on something that doesn’t impact their property or their pocketbooks? Why should a majority of people be able to vote on a tax that only affects a minority?

Sounds more like oppression than taxation – giving the majority a license to plunder the minority.

The other thing that’s always bugged me about the non-homestead tax is that it’s discriminatory.

All property owners, homestead and non-homestead, pay a 6-mill state education tax every year. But the non-homestead owner shells out an additional 18 mills for school operations, meaning his total burden is 24 mills – four times as much as the average homeowner.

I believe in fair taxes and to me, every property should be subject to the same millage rates, regardless of whether they’re classified as homestead or non-homestead.

Property owners should not be pitted against each other or treated differently by government. No group of property owners or taxpayers should be singled out and overburdened, period.

I hate to repeat myself, but it’s wrong.

That being said, I voted in favor of Oxford’s non-homestead millage proposal in the Aug. 2 primary election. That proposal, as you may recall, failed by only 61 votes.

I plan to vote for it again when I visit my polling site for the Nov. 8 general election.

Now, before you start reaching for the tar and feathers, screaming “Hypocrite!” and planning a massive Tea Party-style protest in my front yard, allow me to explain.

Yes, non-homestead operating taxes are wrong, but unfortunately, they are an integral part of how school districts are funded in Michigan and have been since 1990s.

Until something changes at the state level, this is the system we have to live with. This is the way our schools are funded. It’s far from perfect. In fact, it’s patently unfair, but, as the old saying goes, it is what it is. You have to play the hand you’re dealt in life.

Oxford Community Schools did not invent the non-homestead operating tax. Proposal A, approved by state voters in March 1994, created the current system whereby homestead property owners are taxed at a rate of 6 mills while non-homestead owners pay 24 mills.

The non-homestead tax is by no means a new thing in the Oxford district. Oxford voters okayed it in 1996, then renewed it in 2006. School officials didn’t just dream this up.

Oxford Community Schools is certainly not alone in levying this tax.

Districts all over Michigan do it and the state assumes each and every one of them is levying the full 18 mills when it calculates the annual amount of per-pupil funding schools receive from Lansing.

My point?

The Oxford school district should not be blamed for being part of a system that’s beyond its control and its students should not be made to suffer for it.

I believe the school funding system definitely needs to be reformed, but it’s something that must be done at the state level.

It’s a task that must be undertaken by our lazy officials in Lansing and voters across the state.

We cannot fix things at the local level by simply failing the Oxford school district’s non-homestead tax. It may feel good or seem right to some folks, but that’s not the answer.

The only thing a ‘no’ vote will do is leave the school district with a gaping $5 million hole in its budget and hurt every single Oxford student.

If Oxford loses this $5 million, the state will not – I repeat, will not – make up for it. There won’t be any big check in the mail to save the day. Gov. Rick Snyder won’t be flying in on his private jet with a sack full of money.

And because of the way school funding works in Michigan, the Oxford district cannot propose or levy a new, separate operating tax on homestead properties because that’s illegal. There’s absolutely no local mechanism to make homeowners pay more for school operations than the 6 mills currently levied by the state.

So, the only way to close the $5 million gap is through massive budget cuts, the likes of which have never been seen before around here – at least in the 17 years I’ve been covering this town.

Cutting $5 million isn’t just a matter of trimming some fat or eliminating a program or two here and there or even approving a round of layoffs.

To put that amount in perspective, the district could completely eliminate its transportation and athletic departments ($3.2 million combined), and still need to cut another $1.8 million to cover the shortfall.

Cutting $500,000 requires belt-tightening measures. Cutting $5 million requires wholesale amputation.

And in the end, it’s the students who would suffer the most. They would be the ones to lose out in the classroom, on the field and on the stage. They would be the ones put at a severe disadvantage when it comes to competing against students from other districts where non-homestead taxes are levied – you know, everywhere else.

I cannot, in good conscience, vote to do that. Michigan’s school funding system sucks and it’s unfair to non-homestead property owners, but I’m not going to punish Oxford students to make a point.

Contrary to what some people think, I’m not a “vote-no-on-everything” guy.

Yes, I vote ‘no’ a lot because government at all levels has a tendency to be greedy, wasteful and overbearing.

But I’ve also supported a fair number of millages when I believe they’re justified and necessary.

I don’t believe in mindlessly voting ‘yes’ on every millage proposal like some liberal zombie who listens to National Public Radio. I also don’t believe in reflexively voting ‘no’ like someone who lives and dies by what FOX News idiots say.

Like everything else in life, I take things on a case-by-case basis and judge it in a reasonable and rational manner.

In this case, the Oxford school district deserves a YES vote in November.

It is what it is.

 

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