Saturday, August 2, 2008

How I Benefit from My Local Taxes

My husband and I bought our first home less than two years ago. With that purchase came the pride of homeownership (even though we owe the bank big time), a fair amount of maintenance responsibility, and coming in on the enjoyability spectrum just ahead of monthly mortgage payments, three hefty tax bills per year. We pay property tax to our county, a separate school tax to the school district we live in, and income tax to our township.

Since we don't have kids, we don't get much benefit out of the school tax. I am hopeful though that current education is good enough that those kids won't screw up when they're measuring out my meds fifty years from now. The county provides some necessary but not particularly exciting services for our tax dollars, such as a police force and snow plowing in the winter time. The local fire department is not supported by tax dollars. It's an all volunteer force that's supported by donations and fundraisers.

Where we really see a big payoff for our involuntarily spent money is at the township level. Here our tax dollars are converted into "free" services that I have found incredibly valuable. We have a top notch new library that I visit just about every week. I borrow DVD's for free, get all the books I want to read, and even pick up a few magazines now and then. I've gotten to a first-name basis with several staff members, including the woman who handles inter-library loans. While the library's catalog is not vast, she can usually obtain any book and most DVD's I want within ten days or so. Sure, it's not instant gratification, and I don't get to keep the books. But with her help and the library's resources I've managed to reduce my reading budget to nearly nothing, and I've put my Netflix account on indefinite hold. My husband regularly prowls through the music cd's. So we've spent almost nothing for our music over the past year.

The next biggest benefit is the free compost and mulch that goes into my garden. This is a precious resource for a gardener. Now that we have a beater pickup truck, it's possible to make one trip to the yard waste facility and get quite a large load of this stuff. It's not organic, but it's free! True, we have to load it and unload it ourselves, at least most of the time. But it's enjoyable outdoor work, and the mulch saves me a lot of weeding time and effort later on. Apparently there are times of the year when the supply is so abundant that they'll load a pickup truck for a nominal $5 fee. That's an option I'd be happy to jump on. So I'll be keeping my eye out for that offer.

The last area I see real value for our township tax dollars happens in the fall. If I wish, I can simply rake all our leaves out to the streetfront, where they'll eventually be sucked up by the giant vacuum cleaner trucks. Leaf raking is a serious fall chore around here. For the first few weeks it's enjoyable to work outside in the crisp autumn air. But as the leaves continue to fall and fall and fall, it gets a little repetitive and frustrating. (We have a surprising number of very large trees on our not very big property.) It would be even more frustrating if I had to bend down and scoop up all those leaves and bag them armful by armful. Being able to just rake them to the edge of the property is a nice pass. I keep a supply of leaves for additional mulching around the garden. But the township handles the excess for me, and then adds it to the compost they give out in the spring. We can also take any branches knocked down in storms to the township to be chipped into the communal mulch pile.

I've tried to guesstimate the value of the services and goods that I now get for "free" from the township. I used to have a fairly serious book-buying habit, which had long been exempted from austerity measures. My husband had a similar arrangement for his music budget. Very conservatively, I'd guess we spent $1000 per year on books and music. As for compost and mulch, I had previously used the trick of showing up early at the hardware store to pick up the torn open bags for half price. But even so, each large bag would routinely cost me $1.50 to $2.50. Now I pay nothing most of the time. I'd happily pay $5 for a pickup bed load of either compost or mulch. Considering how much free compost and mulch we've used, we must be getting at least a $100 value each year. So, at the township level, I'd say we're getting a direct return of $1100 or more per year on our income tax. Not bad!

It's useful to remind myself of these benefits when the tax bills come in. It takes the sting out of it to some extent. What tax-funded services are available in your area? Do you take advantage of them? How much money do you save by doing so?

No comments: