Do Higher Taxes Automatically Mean Better Public Safety?

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Earlier this year, the City Council of South Burlington, Vermont, approved an increase in the city’s public safety funding. The increase, which amounts to an additional $103.86 per average household per year in taxes, will pay for the hiring of an additional full-time police officer to help cut the city’s rising overtime costs and an additional full-time firefighter. “We’re always playing catch up,” South Burlington Police Chief Trevor Whipple told the council. “We’re never at a full complement.”

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, public safety agencies across the nation have found themselves scrambling for funding to satisfy personnel and capital asset needs. For example, city officials in Eureka, California, are considering cutting an entire police unit to help compensate for a budget gap of more than $800,000, but there is concern that this could undermine the overall public safety of Humboldt County.

However, many believe that higher taxes may not be the answer, and “Wealth of States” reveals that there is no clear correlation between increased public funding and improved public safety.

Safeguarding the Public

“The official Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) measures of violent crimes and property crimes do not show any systematic changes in relative rankings for the states that adopted an income tax,” notes “Wealth of States” (p. 19). Differences in crime for the 11 states that have adopted a state income tax since 1960 (Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia) are no greater post-adoption than pre-adoption, according to the book. And only three of the 11 states reduced their violent crime rates between the introduction of their income tax and 2012.

Improvement in public safety is more a matter of better money management than availability of more funds. For example, an analysis of health and hospital personnel per 10,000 residents in each of the 11 states reveals that, despite the alleged availability of funding, only four states actually increased their number of health care workers after adopting a state income tax. Four of the seven states that failed to improve their health care employment showed significant drops in their full-time-equivalent hospital employees (p. 19).

Using another metric, “Wealth of States” examines fourth-grade reading scores in the 11 states. Of these, only three reported increases in 2013, while the other seven (there is no scoring data for Illinois) reported declines in their scores (p. 17). This data helps contradict the notion that a tax increase automatically equates to an improvement in other public services, such as education.

Money as a Cure-All

In “Wealth of States,” former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg states that the marketplace itself should determine what is fair and adequate for retention and recruitment regarding public services (p. 15). Exceeding this determination draws money from other services and increases the tax obligation for residents. This can make the area less attractive to live and invest in, eventually shrinking the tax base. This creates a continuously degrading spiral in which the city and/or state must make do with fewer resources.

While throwing money at a budget crisis may seem like the logical solution, untargeted funding may ultimately create more problems than it solves. As with most situations, money does not necessarily solve all problems; wise planning and early awareness may be more effective in avoiding deeper crises later on, even in terms of funding for public services.