Monday, December 14, 2009

Poughkeepsie Journal Gets It Almost Right

A front-page story in the December 11-th Poughkeepsie Journal by reporter Jenny Lee-Adrian, headlined “Taxpayers fume over planned rate hike,” on property taxes for Dutchess County Government, focuses attention where it belongs:  On the tax rate and the tax rate increase.  This story is a marked improvement over most of the Poughkeepsie Journal's past coverage of local property tax issues, of which I have been highly critical.  In my post Poughkeepsie Journal Fails Truth-in-Taxing Test, I state:
Readers of the Poughkeepsie Journal need the tax rate and change in tax rate in order to understand the essence of what's happening. This means they need the change in the tax rate in the headline itself, in the lead sentence, and possibly also in the sidebar information — not buried in the tenth paragraph, or omitted entirely.
Lee-Adrian's story comes closer to meeting this standard than any other local property tax story I've seen in the Poughkeepsie Journal in recent months, though there is still some room for improvement.
  1. The headline alludes to the fact that the planned tax rate would increase.  Good.  Even better would be to mention the amount (percent) of tax rate increase in the headline.
  2. The lead sentence is, “Amid an economy in crisis, Dutchess County residents are outraged their county property tax rate would increase by 14.6 percent next year.” [emphasis added]  Lee-Adrian gets full credit for stating the tax rate increase in the lead sentence.  Unfortunately for readers, the actual percent increase is 14.3.  Although her story claims that the 14.6 value was provided by “the Legislative staff,” Lee-Adrian has confirmed that she calculated the percent increase herself, and that she used rounded tax rates.  Using rounded tax rates introduces noticeable inaccuracies.  This is why the tax rate increase in her story is inaccurate.  My calculation uses the high-precision tax rates that would be used to compute individual tax bills.
  3. The sidebar information (in the print edition) displays the property tax rates, not only for 2009 and the amended 2010 tax years, but even for tax years going back to 2006.  It even displays the budgets and property tax levies for all years.  Good, and good.  Even better would be to display the tax rate increases (percents) from one year to the next.  In my view, the tax rate increases are more important than, for example, the tax levy information that is included in the sidebar.
  4. The story mentions the fact that the original Steinhaus budget increases the tax rate “... from $2.54 in 2009 to $2.66 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2010.”  This is a key piece of information when comparing to the county legislature's amendments, and it's good that it appears in the story.  Unfortunately, this quote is buried in the 14-th paragraph of the story, on the second page continuation in both the print and web editions.  Even more important than this quote is the fact that the Steinhaus budget represents a 4.6 percent increase in the tax rate.  This crucial fact appears nowhere in this story (and as far as I know, in no other Poughkeepsie Journal story).   In my view, readers should have been informed upfront that while the legislative amendments yield a tax rate increase of 14.3 percent, Steinhaus' original budget yields a tax rate increase of 4.6 percent.
How To Encourage Publication of Tax Rate Increases?
    A possible outcome of my criticism of Lee-Adrian's tax rate increase calculation (Item 2 above) is that Poughkeepsie Journal reporters (if they read my blog) will be discouraged from publishing property tax rate increases.  This would achieve the exact opposite of my purpose.  I can think of two obvious ways to avoid this outcome:
    1. Reporters can calculate tax rate increases correctly, just by using high-precision tax rates.  A high-precision tax rate is simply the exact tax levy divided by the exact market value.  And be sure to retain all significant figures in the quotient!
    2. Reporters can request public officials to do this calculation for them.  However, reporters should be prepared for significant resistance on the part of public officials, because the officials know that tax rate information puts the tax situation in the most unfavorable light in a time of decreasing property values.  Officials much prefer to focus on tax levies and typical tax bills, which make the tax situation seem not as bad as it really is.
    My hope is that the Poughkeepsie Journal will employ some combination of the above methods to provide its readers with tax rate increase data essential to an informed public.


    1. Does almost count? Keep on Keepin' on, Keeping them Honest. I figured the difference probably had something to with that ole problem rounding.

    2. What would be a proper % increase for a Tax Rate increase from $1.52 to $1.91. ?


    3. Reply to Ozzy: Well, it would be 25.7 percent. Why do you ask?

      The thing is, no real tax rate is likely to be exactly $1.52 or $1.91. They're more likely to be something like $1.52386045 and $1.90573962, in which case the increase would be 25.1 percent.

    4. I ask because the commerical rate in Fishkill went up that amount in 3 years, and I wanted to make sure I had it right.

      Thank You!

    5. The "official inputs" used to compute the 14.3 percent tax rate increase were from the legislature, and were apparently only an estimate. The county budget office later refined the tax levy, yielding a tax rate increase of 13.9 percent. For details, see


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