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Paying the BIG utility bill - your property tax

Well, I paid what I call my BIG utility bill this month, but really the only reason I consider it big is because it only comes once a year instead of every month.What would that utility be? Why that would be the services my local government provides me.Some folks may think it’s stretching it to call it a utility bill, but after all the years I’ve been paying it that’s the way I’ve come to look at it.

I pay a co-op for my electricity and telephone, and I pay the county for a whole bunch of other services.While I always use the services provided by my telephone and electric companies there are only a couple of things provided by the county that I use daily such as the county road in front of my place. Others I use only intermittently like the county dump and the library; and some, I hope, I never have to use like the fire department and Sheriff’s office, but they’re there if I need them. There’s also one I’ll only use once, but I’ll use it for a long, long time, and that would be the cemetery.

And I pay to educate other peoples’ kids.

Unfortunately I hear people question having to pay property tax to pay for schools. “Why should we have to pay for that?” they say, “We don’t have any kids in school.” Well, the short answer is that somebody paid for our education and it’s our turn to pay for those who come after us. Another way I look at it is that I’m paying off the debt I own to those folks who paid taxes for MY education. Then too, since I view a society with a bunch of people who can’t read, write or do figures a pretty dismal place for me to live in, I view other people’s education as important to me personally, so it’s a benefit I use.

One problem with getting this big utility bill once a year is that it can come as a shock because it may have been forgotten about, whereas other utilities remind us monthly; wouldn’t it be more convenient for family budgets if the property tax could be paid on a monthly basis? I would prefer it.

Property tax is probably the most complained about tax in Montana, and I think it is, in large part, because of its lump sum nature. I have seldom heard complaints about paying the tax on gasoline or the lodging tax, and the income tax is done through withholding so there’s no great sticker shock there.

One difference in the electric and telephone service and those utilities provided by county government is that you can choose how much electricity or telephone service you consume, or you can choose not to have it at all, but you are stuck with paying a fixed rate for government utilities whether you use them or not. That may seem unfair, but the decision to provide those services was made by the citizens either directly or through their elected officials.

We might not like paying for them with a tax based on the value of our property, but we will have to pay for them one way or the other and there are a very limited number of ways to do that; taxes on income, purchases, or wealth as represented by property. While some states don’t have an income tax, and some no sales tax, every state has property taxes. Homeowners pay them directly and renters indirectly through rent payments, but services available to the public through government are paid for.

I once knew a fellow who preferred the property tax to the sales tax for an interesting reason. He liked getting that big bill once a year instead of paying tax with every purchase. “I like that big bill,” he said, “because I want to KNOW how much I’m paying for government instead of being nickeled and dimed every time I take out my wallet.”

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Senator Jim Elliott Senator Jim Elliott is a State Senator from Trout Creek in his 15th year of legislative service, and is chairman of the Senate Taxation Committee.

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