The preceding topic has indicated that there is some demand for what is known as local option, or home rule, in taxation - that is, to allow each tax district to be an automaton in determining its fiscal policies. While it does not usually appear in the public discussion that this is a single tax measure, yet the single taxers are always ardent advocates for the adoption of the principle, with the hope that some locality, when it has secured the power of acting on its own initiative, will adopt the single tax.
Many of the arguments which are presented for this decentralization and separation are appealing, and deserve notice. It is claimed that the physical and industrial conditions of a state differ so widely that tax methods which are suitable to one locality are adverse to the interests of another. In proof of this, disparity between the needs of farms, villages, and large cities is pointed out.
Furthermore, it is claimed that the local authorities, because of the intimate knowledge they have of the local affairs, and because of their personal interest in them, have a much better basis upon which to formulate fiscal policies than would officials who have no such interests. The placing of citizens of local districts upon their own resources, and allowing them to work out their own salvation, will stimulate an increased interest in civic and fiscal affairs, it is claimed.
It has been suggested above that absolute autonomy on the part of local districts presaged an increase in the evils of double taxation. Not only this, but it would open the way for all sorts of favorable discrimination to particular industries to secure location within the district. The dangers of giving a large number of irresponsible assessment districts a free hand to introduce and experiment with all sorts of untried ideas are too great to be accepted. A certain amount of freedom is no doubt desirable, but it should be so curbed and directed as not to endanger the safety of the larger body politic.
Equalization of Assessments. - The recent trend for the solution of fiscal difficulties, however, has been toward a centralization of authority and responsibility, rather than toward a further decentralization. One factor which has caused this has been the desire to secure greater equality in the valuation of property. The inequalities in assessment, which arose with the growth of corporate industries, first led to centralization. This was in reality a movement away from the practically pure local option which formed the early part of our fiscal systems. These discrepancies in assessment led to an attempt to equalize values by a central board appointed for that purpose. It has often been difficult for this board to secure the proper information, yet it has frequently been able to alleviate much of the inequality and injustice which has arisen because of the incapabilities, inconsistencies, or indisposition of local officials.
Control of Assessments. - A more important development of centralization has been the control which central officials exercise over local ones, especially over the assessors. More frequently, also, is it becoming true that the assessment district is being enlarged, and the assessment for the district performed by competent agents. In many cases it has gone so far that the central authority is found to be a state official, to whom county supervisors are held responsible, while under the county supervisors, and responsible to them, are the local assessors. In some cases the smallest assessing district has been made the county, and all the assessments are made by the county supervisor. These supervisors and assessors are usually appointed under civil service rules, and may continue in office as long as efficiency warrants.
Advantages of Centralization. - The outstanding advantages of this form of centralization are plain. In the first place the assessor is divorced from politics. His position does not depend upon how much leniency he shows the owners of the assessed property, but rather upon how well he performs his task. In the second place, men of much better qualifications can be secured through a process of examination of the capabilities for performing the tasks. The system in use in New York City will illustrate the possibilities. The assessors are chosen on the basis of competitive examination, the examination dealing largely with the aspects of valuation. The law requires that one out of the first three rated highest in the examination must be appointed, and it has been the practice of the mayor to designate that the appointments must be made in order of the eligibility, as shown by the examination. As a whole, competent men have been chosen, whose only fear of losing the position is from failure to perform satisfactory service. Many of the assessors have been serving a number of years, and have become more efficient and valuable with the accumulation of experience.