Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

Columns

December 29, 2013

LARRY DeBOER: You better watch out: The assessor is coming to town

Bad tax policy encourages people to do silly things.

The holidays are here, and that means we get to watch the great holiday movie, “A Christmas Story.” Then we get to watch it again. And again.

We’re fine with that, especially here in Indiana. The movie is set in the Hoosier State, and it is based on stories by Indiana’s own Jean Shepherd. He narrates the movie, too.

Some of the scenes in “A Christmas Story” come from Shepherd’s collection, “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.” In the book you’ll find stories about Flick, the Red Rider BB gun and the old man’s special award.

Read on, though, and you’ll come to my favorite — the only humorous story I’ve ever found about Indiana property taxes. It starts out funny, anyway, but it gets a little dark toward the end. The story is “‘Nevermore,’ Quoth the Assessor, ‘Nevermore….’”

Back in the day, Shepherd wrote, “The Indiana personal property tax was very personal.” Household property used to be taxed. The local assessor would tramp through your house, assessing the carpet and the fridge and the radio. Then you’d get a tax bill, which some people paid — and many people didn’t.

In the story, the assessor is spotted up the street. The mom whispers to the narrator (presumably Ralphie), “The Assessor! For crying out loud, quick. Unplug the radio! Take it down to the coal bin!” The assessor arrives, and mom tells him the fridge hardly works and reveals the hole in the rug, usually hidden under the davenport. Ralphie can’t understand it. He shouts, “No Ma! Ma, it’s our refrigerator! It has great ice cubes!”

We amended Indiana’s constitution in the 1960s to eliminate household personal property taxes. Later, we dropped automobiles from the property tax, replacing this with the motor vehicle excise tax. Then, from 2003 to 2007, we phased out property taxes on business inventories. The base of the property tax has been narrowed over the past 50 years. All that’s left is land, buildings and business equipment.

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