Let’s get our house in order on property tax debate

What kind of country do people want, and how do they want politicians to deliver it? The questions arise in light of some of the clown-acting this week in local authority chambers.

Let’s get our house in order on property tax debate

What kind of country do people want, and how do they want politicians to deliver it? The questions arise in light of some of the clown-acting this week in local authority chambers.

At issue was the basic tenet of all politics — the raising of taxes to pay for services.

This is the time of year that local authorities decide for the coming year the level of local property tax (LPT) to be paid. Since its introduction in 2013, councils have the choice of increasing or reducing it by 15% from the standard rate.

The measure is largely in place to give local politicians the power to raise taxes to plug shortfalls in services in their area. Yet, in the biggest local authorities the majority of politicians prefer to let people do without services rather than raise the money to provide them.

Cork City Council is a perfect example of this. Earlier this month, the Green Party made public a proposal to raise the LPT by 15% and to ringfence the money for a community investment fund to repair footpaths, create cycleways, and maintain playgrounds and community centres.

The proposal was in response to a report from the chief executive of the council, Ann Doherty, that outlined how a 15% increase would bring in an extra €3.1m, which is badly needed. Such an increase would cost three quarters of homeowners in the city €47.50 over the year, or around 90c a week.

The Greens’ proposal was met with virtual silence in the weeks leading up to Thursday’s meeting on the LPT. The only public response was from the Solidarity Party, which simply said it is opposed to the tax as it is an “austerity tax”. The sight of a so-called hard left party opposing a tax on property would have poor Karl Marx spinning in his grave.

None of the other parties had anything to say on the proposal. There was no indication as to whether there would be support for it, or whether the thought of raising tax to pay for much-needed services was an outrageous notion.

On Thursday, the answer came weighed down with cynicism. At the meeting, Fianna Fáil lord mayor John Sheehan refused the request to debate the proposal. He said the vote would simply be taken without debate as this was the process that had been followed for the last five years since the tax was introduced. The council voted 19-8 to leave the tax as it is. The Green Party’s Dan Boyle labelled the process as a “democratic outrage”.

What were these politicians afraid of? Debating, persuading, making a cogent argument is supposed to be the meat and drink of politics. Were they terrified of looking like fools or cynics in a debate that would have highlighted why a very modest increase in what is a progressive tax was badly needed?

Green councillor Oliver Moran put it thus: “No matter what your position, what happened tonight was utter cowardice. The first responsibility of an elected representative is to stand up and be counted. Running away from debate has no place in politics. They should hang their heads in shame.”

Unlike the city council, Cork County Council did have a debate on the matter earlier in the week. There again, the chief executive of the local authority – Tim Lucey – pointed out the need for funds to have any chance of maintaining services.

Green Party councillors proposed a 5% increase in the tax from the 2019 level. This would cost €30 annually for nearly 90% of homes in the county. That was too much for Fianna Fáil’s Seamus McGrath. The property tax, he told the meeting, remains “deeply unpopular”.

He didn’t give any examples of what a popular tax might look like.

“While we don’t believe that a decrease is appropriate, increasing it is something we are not prepared to do,” said Mr McGrath. He managed to make increasing a tax sound like the most unpalatable thing he could ever be asked to do in his political career.

When the motion was put before the council by the Greens’ Alan O’Connor, nobody would second it. Up stepped the Social Democrats’ Holly Cairns, who said she would second it in the name of having a debate, but would be voting against it herself.

As it turned out, the motion was carried by 27 votes to 23. What is staggering is that even though the majority in the chamber were in favour of the tax increase, most of them couldn’t bring themselves to second the motion because they would be associated with it. Or, if you like, they did the right thing as they saw it, but they didn’t want to be seen doing it.

Similar fare was on view in the Dublin councils over the last few weeks. In Dublin city, only the Greens, Labour, and the Social Democrats voted against any increase. One might expect Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to protect the wealthy in the city’s leafy suburbs, but self-styled, left-wing parties such as Sinn Féin, People Before Profit, and Solidarity did likewise.

Earlier, South Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Rathdown voted against any increase, while the councillors in Fingal took their lives in their hands by accepting a 5% hike.

There are anomalies in the LPT that are often used to oppose it, but there is no escaping its progressive nature: The more valuable your home, the more tax you pay. Apart from that, the tax is very low by international standards, and based on 2013 property valuations, which are completely out of date.

The bigger truth is that most parties — with the exception of those on what might be called the soft left — are determined to maintain a populist stance when it comes to taxes. This dictates that the public in general — or a large cohort such as homeowners — should never be asked directly to fund services.

Taxes are to be applied only in an indirect manner and are determined not on the basis of whether they are progressive, or in the interests of social justice, but where they will receive the least resistance or controversy.

On the right, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are still wedded to the notion that cutting taxes is one of the main guiding principles of governance. This idea was at its most popular when the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democat governments of 1997-2008 were driving the ‘ship of State’ onto the rocks. On the far left, the provision of better services is a constant refrain, but never at the political cost of asking potential voters to pay for the services.

What kind of country do people want? Do they want honest debate in which home truths and real choices are placed before the public and debated? Or do they want to maintain the pretence that the provision of services in society should not be prioritised unless somebody else can be found to pay for them?

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