November 26th, 2010
We have been discussing building, the theme for this year’s First Day School program [Building: Family, Community, Peace]. We discussed what most of us think of when we think of the idea of building. Many of us thought of adding onto something, of making something bigger or better.
We read a selection from “Global Citizen” by Donella Meadows. She works with systems dynamics and lives in rural New Hampshire. She has this to say about growth:
The Only Sure Result of Growth is Growth.
City councils and planning boards seem to be guided by one sacred belief: It’s good to grow. Why? Because development will broaden the tax base and keep down taxes.
Eeryone seems to know that’s true, but everything in my personal experience says the opposite. When I moved from a big city to a smallk town, my property taxes went down and the quality of schools and services went way up. Since then the town has grown 50 percent bigger and my property taxes has tripled. So I have developed a sacred belief of my own: Growth costs dearly for the people who are already here.
I hae a habit of testing beliefs against the evidence whenever I can. A few years ago I plotted the equalized tax rate for everytown in New Hampshire against each town’s ten-year growth rate in population and total assessed value. If growth really brings down taxes, those graphs should have sloped downward. If, as I thought, growth raises taxes, the graphs should have sloped upward.
The graphs looked like the stars in the New Hampshire sky. Pure scatter. In some towns growth was followed by lower taxes, in other towns by higher taxes. Neither sacred belief survived that test. It seems that the kind of growth and the way the town spends money are more important to the tax rate than the simple fact of growth.
To show how that works, here is a sample calculation of the direct tax impact of a development proposed in my town last year. The plan was for 60 houses on 280 acres. Let’s assume first that the houses would be assessed at $100,000 each and that together they put 60 new children into school. At the current tax rate, those houses would bring in $127,000 in additional town revenue every year. But if our per-pupil and per-household costs stay the same, the new development would cost the town $142,000 in school costs and $44,260 in garbage pick-u, road maintenance, and so forth. Those 60 houses would raise the taxes of everyone else in town a total of over $60,000 per year. (That comes to $30 for every man, woman, and child.)
On the othe rhand, if the houses were worth $150,000 each and put only 30 new children into school, taxes for the rest of us would go down by $75,000 per year.
These calculations do not take into account secondary effects–the necesity to build a new water system or school or the possibility of new stores or businesses. If a 60-job industry came to town instead of a 60-home development, roughly 60 new families would move in nearby (since we aleady have nearly full employment), but maybe they’d settle and put their kids in school in another town.
So, growth can lower or raise taxes, or growth in one town can raise or lower taxes in another town.
I don’t know why we always talk about the tax implications of growth–which are close to unpredictable–whe there are other implications far more certain. We can surely expect rom that 60-house development 60 more families, at least 60 more cars on the road, 60 septic tanks, 60 water and electricity hookups, 60 chimneys emiting air pollution, 280 less acres of field and forest, a town that fels and acts a lot less “small town,” some construction jobs for a while,, and (the real motivating force), profit for the developer. The one certain result of growth is not lower taxes but growth.
Every town has a number of instruments with whch it can control growth, to maximize its benefits and minimize the costs. They include zoning, subdivision regulation, land trusts, and conservation easements. We would use those instruments more effectively if we dropped the sacred belief that growth is always bad or good. We need to get much more specific. Growth of exactly what, exactly wehre? What concrete results wil it have in the near term and the long term in our town and the town next door? Are those results fair? How can we distribute the costs and benefits of growth as fairly as possible?
We then talked about how the news constantly informs us that the way out of our current economic woes is to “increase spending” and “expand the economy.” without discussing how the increased use/waste of resources will impact the planet.
We then turned to a brainstorm of things we want to build in the coming year. The new meetinghouse was a priority focus, and we noted that we are not making anything new and we are not expanding as we create a meetinghouse. Instead we are refurbishing an existing building for a new use.
The results of the brainstorm are [so far]:
Create a mural or large canvas for the new meetinghouse [both a handprint mural and a leaf mural have been suggested]
Beautify the outdoor space; plant flowers or bulbs
Make a movie about the new meetinghouse. Possibly film now and later to show the progress towards completion.
Have a meetinghouse cat
Have comfy furniture in the First Day rooms
Possibly create a loft in the Power Q room
Have a slide from the second story or possibly a zip line
Repair/refurbish the elevated place to sit outside
Create a funny Power Q video set to music.
The Alternatives to Violence Project [AVP] will be presenting a Basic Workshop in cooperation with the YFIR program. Unfortunately, this weekend will be the same weekend as the Christmas Pageant, so people would have to choose between those activities. There was some discussion in which many felt that the “taste” of AVP offered at last summer’s camp really couldn’t provide the full experience of AVP, and therefore several people are considering attending this AVP weekend. If you would like to attend, please contact the YFIR program at email@example.com.