Improving Neighborhoods

Editor, News-Register:

City Editor Heather Ziegler (“You Can’t Pick Your Neighbors,”î The Intelligencer, Feb. 2) wrote in her column that she wished she knew what to do about the abandoned and neglected buildings that are sucking the life out of Wheeling neighborhoods.

Voters and officials can solve this problem by changing the upside-down property tax. Wheeling suffers from derelict buildings and blighted neighborhoods because West Virginia’s local tax system punishes people who take care of their homes and rewards owners who let them fall into disrepair. Consider how this destructive tax currently affects three adjacent properties:

ONE — Mrs. Nicegal Green adds a rec room, finishes her attic, puts on new siding and spruces up her landscaping. Along comes the assessor who says, in effect, “You improved the neighborhood and put people to work, so we’re going to ‘up’ your assessment by the amount of your investment. Your taxes will be higher now, and they’ll stay high as long as you keep your place looking so nice.î”

TWO — Mr. Joe Slumbum, next door, lets his roof sag, gutters hang down, stair railings are broken and his yard is full of trash and broken glass. To him the assessor says, “You’ve created a neighborhood eyesore and endangered your tenants, so we’ll lower your assessment and your tax bill. If your house is in worse shape next year, we’ll lower the tax even further.”î

THREE — Mr. Outta Here, on the other side of Mrs. Green, tears his house down. It now provides no shelter nor contributes in any way to the local economy. To him the assessor seems to say, “For keeping your plot of land idle and for completely wasting the services that the community makes available to that location, your tax will be lower than either of your neighbors.î”

Don’t blame the assessor. The fault lies with the absurd law that taxes to the hilt owners who are good caretakers of their properties and that gives tax advantages to those who abuse their sites or let prime locations go fallow. This creates an avalanche of decay and blight that smothers private and public efforts to restore neighborhoods.

The property tax can be turned right side up to support Wheeling’s revitalization by greatly reducing the tax on buildings and shifting the tax burden to the underlying site value. This approach, known as the two-rate tax, recoups land values created by the community without penalizing private improvements. It has been a big help in restoring nearly two dozen Pennsylvania cities. Their in-city development has reduced the sprawl that destroys farmland and scenic areas. The icing on the cake — it gives most homeowners a tax break.

This reform was promoted by MUST! (Mountaineers United for Sane Taxation!), an organization founded and led by my brother, Dr. S. Arthur Rybeck Jr., who died last month. It would be a great tribute to him than to push through the necessary constitutional and legislative acts to make the property tax work for, rather than against, the health of the city my brother loved so much.

Walter Rybeck, director

Center for Public Dialogue

Silver Spring, Md.