Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Poughkeepsie Journal Improves Truth-in-Taxing Reporting

The Poughkeepsie Journal has substantially improved its reporting on  property tax issues this season, by including tax rate change information in headlines, lead sentences, and sidebars.  By including and highlighting this “truth-in-taxing” information, the Poughkeepsie Journal has taken a major step forward in informing its readers about what's really happening with their property taxes.  This first of two blog posts describes the truth-in-taxing improvements in recent Poughkeepsie Journal stories.  A forthcoming post will describe how the Poughkeepsie Journal continues to publish wildly inaccurate tax rate increase percentages for certain jurisdictions — just as it did last year. 

In my Truth-in-Taxing series begun last year, I criticized the Poughkeepsie Journal for, among other things, failing to make tax rates and changes in tax rates the central issue in its stories on property taxes.  I've argued in  Truth in Taxing that tax rate information is the key parameter for describing property taxes, especially in this era of falling property values.  I ended one blog post about a year ago with the following words:
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. The change in the tax rate is the story. Most recent Poughkeepsie Journal stories related to property taxes have failed to provide truth in taxing disclosures. I would very much like truth in taxing to become standard policy in the Poughkeepsie Journal's property tax reporting.  [emphasis in original]
What a difference a year makes!  Last year (late August 2009 to early spring 2010), Poughkeepsie Journal property tax stories rarely placed tax rate change in the headline, the lead sentence, or the sidebar, though there were a few exceptions.  All too often, tax rate information wasn't in the story at allThis year (beginning in late August 2010), the situation is reversed:  Nearly every story I've seen on property taxes includes the tax rate change in the headline, the lead sentence, or the sidebar — sometimes in all three.

Town of Fishkill Withholds Tax Rate

Here's the one exception that proves the rule:  The Town of Fishkill, for which reporter Susan Campriello wrote two stories.  The first of these stories, published October 14, 2010, includes an elaborate “excuse” by Town of Fishkill Comptroller Robert Wheeling as to why he hadn't “yet” provided 2011 tax rate information.  The second story, published November 8, simply notes that Wheeling failed to provide this information.  In both stories, Campriello includes in the sidebar last year's tax rate, as well as a note that this year's tax rate is “unavailable”.  In this way, Campriello makes it unmistakably clear to the reader that the tax rate information is important, and that a government official is withholding it.  (By the way, you can be sure that Fishkill's tax rate increase will be large:  Just the tax levy alone has increased by 10 percent.  Combining this with an estimated 6 percent decrease in Fishkill's tax base means that Fishkill's tax rate will probably increase about 16 percent.)

Tax Rate Increase Is Prominent

Apart from the stories on Town of Fishkill, I've seen 12 other stories on property taxes since end of August.  Here's how they've dealt with tax rate information:  Eight of the 12 stories had sidebars; every sidebar included the tax rate and the tax rate increase amount.  Eight of the 12 stories (not quite the same 8) stated the new tax rate in the lead sentence.  Two of the 12 stories stated the tax rate increase amount in the headline, and a third story in the subheading.  The headline of a fourth story ambiguously reads “Hyde Park plan raises taxes 17%”.  That could mean anything.  Only by reading the story does one learn that the “17%” is actually the tax rate increase.  Partial credit for that.  Another partial credit for the headline, “New school-tax rate adopted for Hyde Park”.  At least it focuses attention on the tax rate.

In summary, every one of the 12 stories includes the tax rate change in the headline, the lead sentence, or the sidebar.  The Poughkeepsie Journal has made a major improvement in implementing Truth-in-Taxing in its coverage of property tax issues.  I'm gratified to see what appears to be a new editorial policy to focus on tax rates and changes in tax rates.

Major Calculation Errors Persist

My praise for the Journal's truth-in-taxing efforts is less than wholehearted because this season's stories continue to calculate tax rate changes incorrectly for certain jurisdictions.  This means that the Poughkeepsie Journal is now giving greater prominence than last year to tax rate changes that are inaccurate — wildly inaccurate.  My next blog post will discuss this issue in detail.

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