Abatements for Thee but Not for Me?

As Franklin County property owners, including myself, recently paid our first installment of real estate taxes, the time seems right to review the worst-kept secret in the state: Franklin County residents pay some of the highest property taxes in the nation – except for the growing numbers of residents who pay almost nothing. Most Franklin County property owners are paying thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars in taxes for the upkeep on our schools, police, roads, sewers, and hospitals. Meanwhile, the special few, including Mayor Coleman, are enjoying these benefits at a massive discount.

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The blatant unfairness of the abatement process — which largely favors new, upper-income residents over poorer and established residents — is clear to any impartial observer. However, it is also worth considering the bigger policy lesson of the abatement phenomenon: people like paying less in taxes.

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The abatements were introduced and justified on the grounds that they would attract development to areas that were falling behind. Mayor Coleman introduced the Downtown Community Reinvestment Area (CRA) abatement in 2002 to encourage 10,000 people to move to downtown Columbus by 2012. While he fell short of his goal and only 7,000 residents ended up moving downtown by 2012, undoubtedly those who made this move appreciate the smaller tax bill.

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Mayor Coleman has made sure that his property is one of the 1,300 receiving a tax break. In fact, he is now asking $624,900 for his 1,995 square foot, three-story condo on N. Fifth Street, which only two years ago he purchased for $456,000, and which the county last valued at $441,000. He is certainly banking on his buyers being enticed by the substantially lower tax bill they will face.

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Yet it does not appear that the abatements are actually serving the primary goal of attracting new development, as abatements are regularly handed out for projects that would have occurred without the incentives, according to Columbus lawyer Jeff Rich.

While Franklin County’s upwardly mobile and wealthy residents finagle nice tax deals for their homes and investment properties, poorer residents continue to cough up high property taxes to fund county services. In fact, much cheaper properties are billed substantially higher property taxes. For instance, the property tax payment for a downtown condominium valued at $400,000 is less than half a Westgate home valued at $106,000.

Clearly, that’s not a sustainable recipe for our fiscal future. Neither is it fair simply to reward the lucky few while many hardworking taxpayers fork over a double portion of the taxes that facilitate new developments.

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There’s a better way forward: end the abatements, and cut property taxes for everyone. We can attract people to our great (but overtaxed) county while giving relief to everyone here. Let’s end the special favors and make tax policy based on fairness and common sense, not on favoritism.

Baylor Myers HeadshotBaylor Myers is the Ohio Deputy State Director of Americans for Prosperity.

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