If you judge by Internet traffic, it was the year’s best read story at domsdomain -- in 2014!
It directly exposed a lie suffered by thousands of city of Milwaukee taxpayers. It also explained how that lie misled millions in the Wisconsin public about which services cost taxpayers the most, allowing them to continued to blame public schools as the most costly property tax item in Milwaukee. (Why that is bad is something of a phony question, since it was a famous Republican who once pointed out that taxes were the price we paid for quality of life.)
Still, the suggestion of “most expensive” doesn’t sit well with the property taxpayer, who gets that bill at the end of the year and inevitable explodes with frustration – compounded by newspaper stories about the “most expensive.” So here especially it is important the truth be told.
And yet the lie persists.
So now it is 2016 and I am ashamed to report I can reprint as fact my 2014 story without much change – and plead anew for public servants to grow up and address this.
“Got your city property bill? Catch the lie on MPS?” That was the headline.
The top numbers have adjusted as tax bills inevitably will. But amazingly the division of tax burden by pennies in a dollar remains exactly the same lie. The misleading city of Milwaukee enlarged dollar bill, the one that divides up property taxes by the penny in the public mailing, continues to exclude an entire tax unit – the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which this year is $51.1 million. It is charged off as part of Milwaukee Public Schools though MPS doesn’t get to see or control a penny of those millions. The church down the street has a better chance at that.
It is a quirk in state law deliberately manufactured by voucher proponents and furthered rather gleefully by Republicans in power in the state legislature. It compels MPS to levy a tax for both itself and the so-called parental choice program.
The city leaders seem unwilling to expose the lie, though they say they don’t like it. Except the lie allows them to dodge a painful truth. By rolling the lie into that dollar breakdown it makes MPS seem the most expensive swipe at the city property taxpayer ($302.3 million) though it ought to be the city itself at $256.7 million.
Take out of MPS on that faux dollar bill the $51.2 million sucked up by the private or religious voucher schools and the city’s 34 cents out of a dollar would become, as it should, the biggest tax cost, of six governmental units (not the five the public is told about) using city property taxes. MPS would slide down to second place and the parental choice program would slide as it ought to into fourth place, more expensive than the sewerage district and nearly twice as much as the Milwaukee Area Technical College.
Officials at MPS have been pained by this for years and finally they got the city tax bill to include a yellow half sheet insert, one of three inserts in the mailed property tax bill, that in legalese explains the reality, including the other quirk that the high poverty aid offset is all laid at the door of the parental choice program, which otherwise should be listed at $56.6 million not $51.2 million.
This is not only a silly wrinkle in state formula but outrageous to all impoverished in Milwaukee – suggesting that only voucher schools are doing anything about poverty. Yet I doubt that many at holiday time bother to read this yellow insert though they can’t avoid the gigantic green dollar bill graphic the city wraps all the other inserts in.
Confusion with numbers remains the rule of politics. It shouldn’t take a full court press to eliminate lying in financial facts. But as long as the taxpayer imitates a sheep, and as long as city officials continue to bleat rather than roar, expect the lying to continue.