Jill Kerby: Preparing for the real property tax

Next year we are expected to have a full-blown property tax – of some kind – that will replace the controversial €100 household charge and the second-property charge of €200.

Next year we are expected to have a full-blown property tax – of some kind – that will replace the controversial €100 household charge and the second-property charge of €200.

The suggestion is that the government expects to raise at least twice as much – at least around €3.2 billion – than the €1.6 billion they will collect if every property owner signs up and pays the household charge.

The argument in favour of a property tax is that taxing property is a more sustainable source of exchequer funds than taxing labour (via income tax), which can de-incentivise workers and affect employment levels. It is claimed that it is also a fairer form of taxation, especially if the tax pertains to the site value or productive value of the land on which the dwelling exists, and not just the market value of the dwelling.

If the government adopts a site tax next year – and not everyone is singing off the same hymn sheet after junior minister Jan O’Sullivan implied on RTÉ recently that house values would determine what tax is paid – they will have to ensure that the complex will have to be both fair and transparent.

If you are interested to know how a site tax will work and how much you might have to pay, you should consider downloading a study that was done by the Daft.ie economist Ronan Lyons last December for the Smart Taxes Network. (See http://smarttaxes.org/2012/01/30/ronan-lyons-report-on-site-value-tax-now-available/)

In the study Lyons presents a very convincing argument in favour of taxing residential – and commercial land for that matter – on the grounds that “the supply of land… is fixed and thus a parcel of land cannot be ‘withdrawn from supply’; it can merely lie idle. Thus, SVT cannot affect economic outcomes: it is not distortionary.”

Furthermore, says Lyons, “land values vary. Much of the value of a site is created purely by its designation as residential, not agricultural land, i.e. at the stroke of a pen. More generally, land values vary with the value of surrounding amenities. These amenities are typically public goods, either directly, i.e. provided by the Government with taxpayers’ money or indirectly i.e. amenities created by the populations living there, such as social capital, or a rich market for jobs, services or cultural activities. All these amenities incur costs of maintenance or costs of opportunity. Therefore, if public goods create private value, the fairest way of paying for their maintenance is to recoup some of that value from those who benefit.”

He argues that a site value tax “is not a tax in the conventional sense. It is better thought of as a maintenance charge for the value of amenities enjoyed by landowners and residents.”

A site tax also discourages land being left idle or underdeveloped for speculative purposes, and derelict land zoned residential is taxed at the same rate as residential land with houses on it.

In the ideal site value tax world – and Lyons goes into great detail about how site values could be calculated, which households might be exempt or at least be able to postpone their payment (such as low-income pensioners living on high-value sites – their payments would be collected from their estate) and how previous costs to homeowners, such as high stamp-duty payments during the boom years, could be offset by tax credits. He also notes that a proper system of income distribution will have to take place between high-site-value areas and low-value ones if there are to be any services provided to people who live in more remote or poorer areas.

One thing is very apparent from this study, and that is that owners of even modest homes in busy, high-amenity towns and cities will pay a great deal more than €100 if such a tax is introduced. If a 2% equivalent SVT is introduced, top-ranked sites – where the land is valued at, say, €2 million an acre, could result in annual tax bills of €1,200; a €10 million an acre valuation would see an owner paying as much as €4,960 a year. (Incidentally, these are not untypical UK council tax values or property/site taxes for homeowners in Canadian and American cities where many readers may have family members residing right now.)

Ireland is very unusual in not having a formal property tax, but the old rates system was incorporated into our income and consumption tax system in the 1970s. Consumption taxes are high here and the marginal income tax/PRSI/USC is now around 52% and as high as 56% for higher earners.

Is it fair to burden already stretched middle earners, many of whom are mortgage holders in negative equity and arrears with a potential site value tax of a few thousand euro without reforming and reducing income and consumption taxes? (The Commission on Taxation said absolutely not in its last property tax report.)

As you read this, a new state body is compiling all property prices achieved since 2010. A new property registration authority will report to the government soon on the type of property tax that should be introduced, and everyone who has registered for the household charge will be on that property tax list.

The Smart Taxes Network report (which includes a number of property case studies at the end) could be the framework on which the new tax is based.

Read it and then act: Open a savings account called “Site Tax” at your local bank or credit union and start making contributions.

And get used to the idea that you are no longer just the King of your Castle: you’re now a tenant of the state and the tax you will pay is rent.