Letter from Diane
The mail brought a historic document the other day -- the first Multnomah County individual income tax form. It's noteworthy in a number of respects.
Confusing. For a large segment of the population, which doesn't follow taxes or the news very closely, this baby is going to cause lots of confusion. I'm glad I'm not the person answering the phone at the number listed on the form -- it's going to be a busy week.
Here's the skinny from my viewpoint:
When the voters passed the 1.25 percent county income tax earlier this year, neither they nor the county commissioners required employers to withhold the tax from workers' pay. Employers are allowed to do it voluntarily, but only if the employees ask and the employers want to. So far, I haven't heard of a single employer or employee who's doing it. And so the county's residents are all going to have to figure out how much tax they owe, and then send the county a check for that amount, sometime between now and next April 15. (We'll see how many comply! The feds and states learned a long time ago that you have to have mandatory withholding to make an income tax system work. Multnomah County obviously hasn't gotten that far yet.)
Anyhow, the form that the county just sent out is an "estimated tax" voucher that allows folks to pay the tax early, even though it isn't due until next April 15. Unless someone is planning to pay early, the form can go in the round file. The "real" tax form will be out later.
Why would you pay early? Sounds crazy, but for some folks it isn't. If you itemize your deductions for federal and state income tax purposes, you may want to pay the county tax before Dec. 31, 2003, so that you can deduct it on your state and federal income tax returns for 2003. If you wait until next spring to pay the county tax, you won't get to deduct it on your federal and state forms until you file your 2004 returns (in the spring of 2005). If you go that route, you lose the time value of the federal and state deductions for that whole year.
Of course, if you don't itemize your deductions on your federal and state tax returns, there's no real advantage to paying early, so you can and should round-file the county form that just came in the mail.
The main message that most people need to get is not the nuance of when to pay. More importantly, they need to figure out how much they're going to have to pay, and budget accordingly. Perhaps the Bush tax cut will give them a larger federal refund than they expected, but Multnomah County will be taking a good chunk of that. And unless you file early for the federal refund, it won't get here in time to help you pay the county.
Politically reckless. The format of the mailed document is also curious. Addressed to "resident," presumably at every residential address in the county, the form is set up as a lovely letter from Diane Linn, the county chair, with a bunch of Qs & As below her picture. Page 2 features the requisite pie chart of where the tax money is supposed to go, and the actual payment coupon itself is back on page 3.
Linn is playing politics to the hilt here. It's highly, highly unusual for politicians to put their photos on tax foms. Apparently she thinks that the tax is so popular among constituents that she ought to run her picture on the form package, as if to bask in its glow, or somehow indirectly take credit for it. She's apparently lost sight of the fact that, although the tax passed by a wide margin, many registered voters didn't participate in the election. Most of the nonvoters are going to be quite outraged when they realize that for the first time in their lives, they're supposed to write a check for income tax next April 15. And who is the politician they're going to associate with this hated levy? The lady whose picture is on the cover, of course. (Naturally, the folks who voted against the tax will also greet the form with a high degree of scorn.)
No doubt Linn has ambitions beyond county government. So did her predecessor, but they went nowhere. And Linn's facing a revolt by three of the other four county commissioners over the library director's salary. The rebels look as bad as Linn on that one, but her star is not rising over the issue. And now she seems to be saying, "Remember at election time, I'm the one who led the charge to raise your taxes."
Methinks the photo was a bad move.
Weaselly. I'm amused by the gentle, gradual airbrushing of the promise that was made to the taxpayers during the tax election last May, that if the state got its fiscal act together, the county tax would no longer be necessary. Here's this week's version:
The County has an obligation to fund schools, police and other services at the level voters expected when they supported the local ballot measure. As you know, the question of a statewide surcharge may be decided in a special election. If the state surcharge provides additional funds to Mulnomah County, we will reduce the local tax.Note the word "reduce" in that last sentence. Any allusion to repealing or eliminating the county tax is now out of the picture. As already concluded in this blog a few weeks ago, the county tax is here to stay, at least until its "temporary" term expires.
Optimistic. The pie chart is based on projected revenues of $128 million, with $7 million budgeted for collection actions and audits. I think both of these numbers may be optimistic. People who can't afford to write the check next April (or refuse to do so) simply aren't going to file. Plus, how many people are suddenly going to start using relatives' mailing addresses in Beaverton and Oregon City to defraud the county? I'll bet quite a few. And the bruising statewide income tax referendum scheduled for late January certainly isn't going to help taxpayer morale any.
There will be ways to catch up with the cheats, but they're going to cost more than $7 million, and the process of hounding them isn't going to yield much.
This is going to be interesting, albeit potentially very sad, to watch.