Sunday, July 29, 2007

From Apathy to Activism

First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.

Variation on a poem attributed to Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)

I had been asleep for quite a long time. I went to work. I came home. I pursued my various hobbies and interests. I didn’t pay close attention to what was happening locally. I watched the evening network news and quietly railed against the loss of American lives in Iraq. I read the comics and light news sections of my morning newspaper. I paid very little attention to what was transpiring at the Statehouse.

To me it seemed just more the same age old partisanship bickering. The Democrats and Republicans arguing over trivial issues such as how the opening prayer should or should not be recited and if it should be recited at all. Certainly, there were matters of importance to be discussed. The attempt to amend the Indiana constitution to define marriage and by doing so possibly condemn a segment of the citizenry to second-class (or worse) status needed to be stopped, and it was. But buried within these sideshow distractions was a much grimmer and far more critical issue, one that has come to threaten the ability of the middle-class of Indianapolis to remain in this city.

The Indiana General Assembly, in response to lobbying by various interest groups representing Indiana’s businesses and industries, had repealed the business inventory tax in 2002, to be fully implemented in 2006. Accompanying this was the conversion of the assessment system to one based on the "fair market" value. Thus, in 2003 several neighborhoods in Indianapolis saw sudden increases in their property tax bills. At that time I was living in a condo in Pike township and was not affected by the increases as my assessment did not change. In fact, the closet populist in me was secretly gleeful to see the "haves" made to pay more. Over the course of the next four years I married and purchased a home in the Cottage Home Neighborhood in Center township. One of the main selling points, for my wife and I, were the relatively low property tax rates.

In the spring of 2007 the General Assembly failed to come to terms with the full implications of these events. The best that they could offer the property owners of Indiana was HB 1478 which allowed local county governments the option of raising the County Option Income Tax (COIT) by up to 1% to provide property tax relief. Also included was a "rebate" to ease the pain that taxpayers may feel. A "circuit breaker" was put in place to prevent the property tax rate from surpassing 2% of assessed value in 2008. Therefore, the individual counties were on their own to come up with a plan to meet their revenue needs.

In Marion county, the solution arrived at was to simply increase the property tax rate and reassess residential property to reach the revenue goal. By now everyone should be painfully familiar with the result. Individual homeowners have seen their tax liabilities increase by 30%, 50%, 100% or more, with the highest increases that I am aware of occurring in Cottage Home, where just five homeowners saw increases greater than 500% with the record coming in at 945%.

My increase was 850%.

I received my bill on July 5th, 2007, and over the next few days my emotions ran the gamut from disbelief to despair to anger. I scoured the newspapers for information. I went on-line looking for solutions. I began to learn.

On July 9th I attended my first anti-tax meeting. The Fair Tax advocates were holding a rally and information meeting at the Talbot Street Nightclub. My wife and I attended. After the organizers had spoken the public was given the opportunity to speak. I stood and began with the poem written at the beginning of this piece. The point I wanted to make that evening was that I was paying for the years of my own apathy and that the price to be paid was high.

I began to work on informing my neighbors in Cottage Home about my plight, the plight of the few residents that had been so cruelly reassessed, and how we, working together and speaking with one united voice, could change the system. I posted notices on our neighborhood list-server. On "Black Sunday" I was proud that several of my neighbors joined with us to protest on Monument Circle.

Our voices were heard, and Governor Daniels froze the 2007 tax levy at the 2006 rate, pending reassessment. We are safe for now, but I fear that the governor’s action is nothing more than a stay of execution. Expert opinion is that the new reassessment will not drastically change the results obtained from the first one. The danger is that we will return to a state of apathy now that the immediate threat is over. We cannot allow this to happen. I pledge to do everything in my power to prevent this. I will write letters, lots of letters, letters to the editor, letters to my city-county councilors, letters to my state legislators, letters to my friends and neighbors. I will work the political system. I will attend the rallies. I will speak up and speak out. I will not go quietly into the night.

I opened with a quote and will close with the following.

"We must hang together, gentlemen...else, we shall most assuredly hang separately."

- Benjamin Franklin 1776

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