‘Bell property tax burden second highest in county’ (July 30)

The following is an analysis that is part of a graduate thesis. Learn more.

The second paragraph of this story described the import of the fact described in the headline (and repeated in the lede):

The records appear to confirm complaints by Bell residents who have expressed outrage that they seemed to be paying excessive taxes at the same time the city was paying its top administrator nearly $800,000 and council members were paying themselves nearly $100,000.

From this paragraph there were at least two ways to describe the issue the reporters addressed in the story. The first, broader version of the issue was, “Have Bell citizens been taxed fairly?” The second version of the issue was, “Have Bell citizens been taxed fairly given that city officials earned high salaries at the same time?”

In other words, it was not clear whether the reporters meant to link the importance of the city’s tax burden with administrators’ salaries. How should readers have proceeded?

First, was there an obvious reason to think that whether property taxes were “excessive,” however that ambiguous term was defined, depended on the salaries of city officials? Only, it seems, if the property tax burden would be lower were the salaries lower. Did the story provide any reason to think this would be the case? Its answer was wobbly.

The question did not come up again in the story until the reporters cited the special election passage of the city charter, which “allowed [City Council] members to get around state limits on their salaries.” But the following sentence continued, “It is unclear what bearing, if any, that had on raising property taxes” (15). So the reporters did not present any evidence to this point to suggest a link between tax rates and administrator pay.

Then, in the next paragraph, they wrote:

Revenue from the tax increases went to designated funds or services and did not directly pay for administrators’ salaries. But by freeing money from the city’s general fund, the higher taxes appear to have made the outsized salaries more feasible for the small city. (16)

Now the reporters claimed that there was a link, or at least that there was more likely to be a link. But they did not pursue any further whether the higher taxes “made the outsized salaries more feasible.”

So again, although the reporters did not appear willing to totally disavow a tie between whether taxes were “excessive” and the salaries of city officials, they did not offer much on which to stake that claim (perhaps understandably — it would be a complex argument to make).

The more charitable approach to the story, then, would have been to conceive of the issue as the broader “Have Bell citizens been taxed fairly?”, and the reporters’ conclusion as “No. Bell citizens are excessively taxed.”

The sentence this conclusion came from was that quoted above: “The records appear to confirm complaints by Bell residents who have expressed outrage that they seemed to be paying excessive taxes…” (2). But it was not clear what “confirm complaints by Bell residents” means.

The reporters probably did not mean to simply confirm that Bell residents did, in fact, have complaints. It seems most consonant with what followed in the story to say that the reporters meant that the complaints were “justified,” or at least had merit. Again for the sake of charity, this analysis will proceed under the weaker version of the claim — not that the residents were confirmed to have excessive tax rates but that they had legitimate gripes about them.

But, in a sense, it was almost irrelevant whether the stronger or weaker version of the claim was analyzed. In both cases, the evidence for the claim was the same: a comparison of property tax rates in Bell and other, nearby “affluent” cities, as well as with average county rates (5, 8).

According to the records cited by the reporters, the county tax average was 1.16 percent, while the rate in Bell was 1.55 percent. The rate in Malibu was 1.10 percent, and Bell’s rate was said to be “nearly 50% greater than those in such affluent enclaves as Beverly Hills, Palos Verdes Estates and Manhattan Beach, and significantly higher than just about everywhere else in the county” (8).

Were these differences enough to show that Bell citizens had a legitimate gripe about their taxes? Only with some descriptive assumptions that the reporters did not address.

For one, the detailed comparisons of Bell to “affluent enclaves” forced readers to assume that that property tax rates should be positively related to citizen wealth. No support for that assumption was given, but the support was needed for readers to rule out other possible justifications for a property tax rate, such as paying for improvements to the city or fulfilling previous commitments (both of which would have qualified in Bell, as will be discussed). Even were readers to grant this assumption, comparing Bell to richer cities would have just raised the question of whether Bell’s taxes would be acceptable were the richer cities to raise their tax rates (this is the same problem found in the comparison of salaries in the July 15 story).

But granting the assumption that tax rates and citizen wealth should be positively related, and granting the assumption that Bell’s rates would be unacceptable no matter the rates of richer cities, would not have entirely solve the problem. It could be the case that the affluent cities raise their taxes to a more appropriate level, under the positive-relationship assumption, but that Bell still taxes too highly relative to other cities with similar levels of citizen wealth. To know whether Bell citizens were excessively taxed, readers would heave needed to know what the tax rates are for similar cities, for, as has been discussed, to say simply that Bell’s rates are “significantly” higher was problematic. How far away were Bell’s rates, really, from the no. 3 or no. 4 cities on the list? How far away were Bell’s rates from cities of similar wealth?

The difficulty, then, with accepting the evidence presented by the reporters was twofold even if readers accept their assumption that taxes and citizen wealth should positively relate: First, the comparisons to wealthier cities could lead readers to conclude only that the wealthier cities are undertaxed. Second, regardless of what happens to the wealthier cities, the reporters provided little evidence to indicate that Bell citizens are excessively taxed relative to cities of similar wealth.

In the second half of the story, the reporters presented and tackled a second issue: “Why are Bell’s taxes they way they are?”

The reporters concluded that the rate is based on a “combination of factors … among them, bond debt for municipal improvements such as a sports complex now under construction and a ‘retirement tax’ approved by local voters in 1944 that put property owners on the hook for some of the cost of municipal employees’ pensions” (13). It seemed almost trivially true to say that the tax rate comes from a “combination of factors,” but the reporters helpfully and clearly described reasons why the taxes in Bell were the way they were. For example, the reporters cited, as quoted, measures the City Council passed that increased taxes to pay for pensions (passed by voters in 1944) (13, 18) and a planned sports complex (which “voters approved several years ago”) (20).

Incidentally, the goodwill the reporters built with their well-argued conclusion on this issue was nearly squandered with a flagrant instance of the Argument by Innuendo fallacy. Arguments by Innuendo are defined as “directing another person toward a particular, usually derogatory, conclusion by a skillful choice of words that implicitly suggests but does not assert that conclusion” (Damer, p. 113, emphasis his).

The paragraph in question has been quoted:

In 2005, Bell voters approved a measure that adopted a City Charter, a move that allowed council members to get around state limits on their salaries. It is unclear what bearing, if any, that had on raising property taxes. (15)

As Damer might say, the “straightforward” claim here is simply that the reporters don’t know whether the measure passed in the special election affected property taxes — fair enough.

But it was difficult to read the paragraph and not conclude that the reporters wanted readers to think that the special election and property taxes are related, seeing as they inserted the paragraph in the middle of several other, well-sourced paragraphs tracing the growth of Bell’s taxes. Nor did the reporters elect to cast the sentence in a less accusatory way, such as “But there is no known evidence suggesting that the measure affected property taxes,” which would have admitted the absence of evidence currently while maintaining the possibility that some might turn up. Or, of course, they could have omitted the line altogether.

Instead, readers were left with a textbook instance of the fallacy, “in the impression created that some veiled claim is true, although no evidence is presented to support such a view … The power of suggestion is used in this way to compensate or the lack of evidence” (Damer, p. 113).

The fallacy aside, however, in this story a particularly relevant claim was made on behalf of citizens: that they had a legitimate grievance against their government over taxes (is there any grievance so salient in American democracy?). Unfortunately, the reporters in this story poorly backed their claims, which would have been a disappointment for readers who hoped to use the story to help them determine their reactions to the ongoing scandal. However, the article did provide important information about the history of their current state of taxes for Bell citizens to come up with some conclusions about it.

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