Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Many years ago I was asked to carry out a workplace investigation involving an employee who was accused of being rude and aggressive towards his fellow employees. He wasn’t Irish, and I was surprised at the allegations as I’d always found him to be perfectly reasonable and courteous. I gathered evidence, listened to the people who were making the complaint, and made sure that I was discreetly in his vicinity during many of his dealings with individuals.
Very quickly the problem became clear.
He wasn’t actually being aggressive or rude in any objective sense. What he was being was very straightforward in his dealings with his overwhelmingly Irish colleagues, to the point of brusqueness. He spoke with a very clear, very proper received pronunciation accent. Objectively, he was fine, but to Irish ears, used to someone going around the houses in both conversation and in requests, his bluntness was very sharp indeed.
I pulled him aside for a discreet chat, and he was appalled at hearing that he had upset people. Soon he was learning to be as vague and obtuse as any Irishman.
We’re not a straightforward people. If dancing around an issue were an Olympic sport we’d be collectively dripping in gold. I was reminded once again of this at times unhelpful trait listening to discussions last week about the possibility of Local Property Tax (LPT) valuations being looked at again in 2019.
There were so many Irish people dancing around the subject that I was waiting for a stirring Bill Whelan soundtrack to accompany it.
Let’s be very unIrish and cut straight to the chase.
The purpose of LPT is to raise tax revenue for the provision of public services. Whether provided by the county council or national government, that’s how it is spent.
LPT is levied on the valuation of property to permit for a wider more stable taxbase focused on a high value asset.
The high value asset in particular, property, has a tendency to rise in value, particularly in this nation of aspiring Bull McCabes, thus requiring revaluation on relatively regular basis.
As a general rule, there tends to be a connection between owning a high value asset and wealth. Not always, but more often than not. Certainly enough that a country serious about maintaining a stable and varied taxbase simply can’t afford to ignore it.
Therefore, if you want to maintain or increase public spending you have to be willing to look at increasing sources of taxation and LPT is the obvious candidate.
If you don’t want to increase LPT, which is a perfectly reasonable desire, then you must be willing to forgo increases in spending.
There’s the taboo, the last great unmentionable in Irish public life that neither voters nor the candidates seeking their first preferences wish to speak of, the “Scottish Play” of Irish life.
That taxes like LPT are directly linked to the services one wishes to receive from the state.
Wash your mouth out with soap and water, using that filthy talk!
Poor old Pascal Donohoe, Minister for Loaves & Fishes, comes barrelling onto the stage doing his best Flatley, desperately trying to figure out a way of paying for stuff with a tax that nobody wants to pay.So instead we dance around the issue.
That it’s an anti-Dublin tax.
That there is no connection between what is collected and what is spent locally, or at least, it isn’t visible.
Then there’s the old chestnut voiced by every party when in opposition and ignored in government: local government reform. Reform being code in Irish politics for “We reckon voters like to hear us talk about change, which we’re against, so let’s talk endlessly about the need for consensus before we change anything.” Remember when we were promised that if you voted for Seanad retention, a reformed upper house would be just around the corner? That aul guff. Anything to avoid having to debate the kernel of the issue in public.
Where I live, in the fine county of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, we have a good council. We have brand new very impressive children’s playgrounds and a very swish new library. Who decided to spend the money on them? I have no idea, because how decisions are made are so vague that I just assume it’s nothing to do with the elected councillors and instead every to do with the county chief executive and his team.
That’s not me being cynical about councillors, just recognising our system: the county manager spends our taxes, the councillors do a form of weekly interpretative dance as to his decisions. But ask yourself this: if you’re not happy with how the council is run, who do you fire at election time?
We should confront reality. Reevaluate property values as planned, but let councils have 100% control over LPT rates. If some counties are experiencing sharp upticks in property values, then all the more reason for those counties to cut the rate of LPT to ensure that those owners still pay similar actual cash amounts as before reevaluation.
Say this to the political class and they baulk at the idea, for one fair reason. Do that, they say, and “other” councillors (never them, you understand) will just slash the LPT to zero and then blame everybody else for the massive cuts in services that will lead to.
They’re probably right.
Which leads me back to the fact that in order to have tax accountability voters must know exactly who sets their taxes and budgets, and how to oust them. So the reckless yahoo who does cut LPT by 100% is the same yahoo who then has to explain why this library and that park and that vocational college are closing.
At the heart of the property tax conundrum is the fact that no one gains from actually explaining why we have to have the damn thing in the first place. We end up with the grotesque scenario of populists of the left competing with each other to cut taxes, then feigning indignation when there is no revenue available to fund services they now demand.
The solution is something I saw once in an episode of the 1970s spy action series “The Professionals”, where the show’s stars, unable to disarm a bomb, instead handcuff the uncooperative bombmaker to his own bomb. Suddenly, with literal skin in the game, he becomes very invested in disarming it.
That’s what we need now, to strap the politicians to their own folly. Give one directly elected mayor in each county control over the LPT and county budget, and the ability to be fired directly by the county’s voters. Put their name, face, party and signature on every LPT bill that goes through every letter box. Suddenly he or she will become very concerned with defending budgetary decisions in the county, and making sure the voters appreciate exactly why LPT is at the level it is at and how it is spent. They’ll have to, because they’ll be able to hear the ticking getting louder and louder as polling day approaches and they can’t point the finger at anyone else.