Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Vice-Premier calls for tax revolt

Dutch Vice Premier Zalm called upon Dutch citizens in municipalities that raised the property tax to refuse to pay the tax.

Until about 15 years ago Dutch property taxes were very low, almost nominal. Municipalities were mostly funded by subsidies granted by the central government and by selling permits to businesses.

In the 1990ies this changed and municipalities more and more were expected to fund themselves. This caused them to increase property taxes. Because property taxes had always been very low and more or less the same in the whole country this means that Dutch tax payers are more and more starting to pay attention to their local taxes. Irregularities are becoming an issue.

Last week VP Zalm of the liberal-conservative VVD not only raised the issue, stating that in 62 Dutch municipalities the increases are bigger than permitted by the provincial government. It is off course already a bit strange that this is monitored by the provincial government, which is co-ordinated by the national bureaucracy.

The VP also indicated that tax payers living in municipalities affected by tax hikes should not pay the raised rates. This caused a bit of a stir. The VP, also Minister of Finance, was calling for local tax revolts.

It then turned out that Zalm had based himself on inaccurate data, had not thoroughly checked his facts and shot from the hip at the first opportunity in a televised news program. No doubt thinking of the local elections coming up early next month. It turned out that only a few municipalities had raised the property tax over the limit set by the national state. Zalm had to retract and apologize, which he did.

Interestingly the debate never questioned the rules. Why is the provincial and national government meddling in the affairs of the municipalities? Why do the municipalities raise the taxes?

Obviously, if one municipality has elections, and the voters want the local services raised, taxes have to be raised as well. For instance, Snouck’s party, a local party in a village, wants to improve the local swimming pool and the library. In order to finance the plans and balance the budget, the property tax will be raised by 10 percent. The local population is happy and votes for Snouck’s party. But once Snouck becomes the leader of the biggest municipal fraction it turns out that the plan cannot be executed, because the central government does not allow the property tax to be raised. What is the point of having a municipal council and elections if the way it will be run is narrowly prescribed and the municipality lives mostly from subsidies which are granted by the central government and funnelled to the municipality through a provincial authority? Is the whole set-up even supposed to be transparent? Or is it designed to take as much power and influence from democratically elected officials and to give it to a combination of the political parties in cahoots with the bureaucratic grey eminences whispering from the corridors of power?

The political system has been set-up in such a way that only people who are willing to invest a significant part of their lives and come from the right back grounds will run it, with minimum interference from the public. And the media quickly run from one orchestrated scandal to another, carefully avoiding to raise any questions that might upset the status quo. In the long run, cynism is on the rise and the population increasingly chooses not to vote. I get that it is like that all over the Western world, not just in The Netherlands.

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