By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
OK, so you want me to feel guilty about picking on the county judge for being non compos mentis. Jim Foster is an accidental officeholder, swept in last November on a countywide anti-Bush, Democratic tide. Give the man a break, you say.
He's a guy who owns an alarm business. He's never held office before. In his wildest imagination he never thought he would get elected to this one. Or any one.
He comes from a long line of Dallas County Democrats who allowed their names to be printed on ballots back when Democrats had less chance of actually getting elected than the Green Party.
Things changed. Suddenly. And mainly for the better. The tide of new Democratic officeholders has been really great—the district attorney, the county and district clerks, the county treasurer and especially all the Democratic judges—you hear nothing but good.
The Democratic sheriff? You hear some bad. But at least there's a debate.
Foster? No debate. Everybody knows his election was an unfortunate fluke. The best defense for him I've heard is that it wasn't his fault he got elected.
I said to Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price once, "You know what they say about democracy. The problem is sometimes the people elect the wrong person."
He said, "Well, in this case, I think of something else they say. The problem is sometimes the people elect an innocent man."
Whatever. I guess I didn't really have to jam Foster up so bad for taking part in a stupid prank at the Dallas County History Museum ("Dim and Dimmer," July 19, 2007). And maybe there was no great purpose served by my beating up on him for never coming to work ("In and Out," August 9, 2007).
One caller said to me, "Given everything else you've told us already about the guy, why do you want him to come to work?"
But here's the point. It's the top elective post in county government in this major urban county. Important things do happen, depending on what the person in that post does.
Case in point: Two weeks ago Jim Foster, a Democrat, taking his lead as he often does from fellow county Commissioner Maureen Dickey of the Dickey's Barbecue Pit fortune—a barbecue plutocrat—voted for a change in county taxes to totally screw elderly citizens of modest to moderate means.
Foster. Democrat. Sucks up to plutocrat. Votes to screw the un-rich. Do the math.
Right at the top, I want to be fair about Dickey, because good friends whose opinions I value have accused me of being even more unfair about her than I have been about Foster. I think it is completely appropriate, legitimate, understandable and predictable that Dallas County Commissioner Dickey wants to screw the un-rich.
She is not of them. They are not her lookout. If they want her help, why don't they get rich first? She is a plutocrat, not a Democrat.
But Foster's a Democrat. Or supposed to be.
Here are the specifics. The county has always had a rule that you get $69,000 whacked off the taxable value of your house when you turn 65. Your house is listed at a taxable value of $300,000. On your birthday, they take it down to $231,000.
OK, county property taxes are based on the value of your house. They lower your value, you pay lower taxes. Nice, eh? A break for the geezers.
Dickey talked the commissioners into changing it. Because house values keep going up so much, she said, the way to help old folks is by freezing the taxable value of their homes.
Even if the real value of your house—the value you could get if you sold it—goes up by a lot over time, the county won't increase the taxable value of your house under Dickey's new rule. That doesn't actually completely freeze your taxes, because the county will continue to raise the actual tax rate—oh, look: Her freeze on taxable values will help some old people a lot.
Excepterooni: Ah, yes, the hook, the trick, the sting, the fine print, the part they hoped you wouldn't notice. Dickey talked the commissioners into taking away the $69,000 exemption for everybody who turns 65 from here on out.
Why? For a very good and responsible reason. County needs new shoes. By cutting the geezer taxes with her freeze on taxable values, she's causing the county to lose a lot of revenue. So she takes away the $69,000 exemption they used to get. That gives back a bunch of money to the county. It all evens out.
Hey! You are TOO sharp. You already see it, don't you? If you're giving back X amount of money to the geezers with the freeze, but you're taking away the same amount with the other thing, what good are you doing the geezers?
Ah, but it's a question of which geezers.
Take the $69,000 exemption. In the community of Highland Park, where the average taxable value of a house is now $1.6 million, according to the Dallas County Appraisal District, the $69,000 exemption is basically bupkus. Sixty-nine grand off the top of a $1.6 million taxable value doesn't do a whole lot for you on your tax bill.
In the community of Wilmer, where the average taxable value of a house is $51,354, the $69,000 exemption takes the value of your house down to the negative numbers, meaning you have a tax bill of zero.
So the exemption was a big deal for un-rich people and a little deal for rich people. In fact the county's own forecasts, provided to the commissioners before they voted, showed that most moderate- and lower-income people in the county will lose money for years on the Dickey deal.
Eventually, depending on how long you live, the average person will end up coming out ahead on the Dickey deal. But for most people in most communities, it will take years for that to happen. And there is still a whopping difference in who makes out the most.
I took spreadsheets that the county had worked up to show how the various scenarios will affect taxpayers countywide, and I plugged in numbers for individual cities in the county. The results are pretty staggering.
In the city of Dallas, the average homeowner who lives to 74 and stays in his or her house will come out ahead by about $2,450 for the nine-year period from age 65 to age 74. In Highland Park, that homeowner will come out $21,812 ahead.
Please, if you could hold off beating me over the head for one second about the terrible tax bills people pay in the Park Cities, I would like to offer one small observation: Generally speaking, people in the Park Cities already pay far and away the lowest property taxes of anybody in the county.
I looked up a house in East Dallas that's one block away from my own (on a much pricier street than my own). It is valued on the tax roll at $1,137,450. That family pays a total annual property tax bill of $23,504.48.
Then I looked at a house on Fairfax Avenue in Highland Park that's on the rolls at $1,156,720—a little more than my neighbor's house. Their tax bill for the year is $14,343.44.
Ten grand less! As a percentage of the taxable value of the house, the Dallas tax bill is almost twice the Highland Park bill.
Know why? Pretty simple answer. School taxes in Dallas are substantially higher than in Highland Park. But the city tax rate in Dallas is way, way higher. City taxes in Highland Park are at a rate of 22.5 cents per $100 of value. In Dallas the rate is almost 73 cents. The city of Dallas tax rate is more than three times higher than the Highland Park rate.
Some of the difference is that we taxpayers in Dallas have to shoulder the bill for a lot of major infrastructure that the Parkies can kind of piggyback on without paying. The major arterial freeways that get them in and out of the bubble, the city airport, major flood control along the Trinity, a lot of big regional items.
But some of it also has to do with a whole lot more house value in the park cities paying taxes to take care of way fewer people. Look, even I admit: People have a right to be rich. We can't just eat them.
At their very next commission meeting after voting to screw poor people, Dickey acknowledged—to her credit—that perhaps she had been a bit too bald. She suggested the commission put the $69,000 exemption back into effect. Without batting an eye Foster joined the rest of the commission in doing just that. In fact, almost without opening an eye.
Of course now they have no idea what they've done to their budget. They have given away lots of money but brought back in none. Safe to say, if and when Dickey and Foster ever leave the court, they will not be going into the accounting profession together. One hopes.
I tried to call both Commissioner Dickey and Judge Foster for this story, and I received no reply from either. I remain absolutely committed to one day meeting and conversing with Judge Foster. I promise not to ask trick questions. Just stuff like, I hold up my hand and I say, "How many fingers?"
I'm not out to stump him. I think the Fates have done that already.
I would just like to know: If you're a Democrat, and you ran for office on the Democratic ticket, why do you always vote with the barbecue plutocrats? Why didn't you run for office on the barbecue plutocrat ticket?
As for Maureen Dickey? She's doing one hell of a job. Just what her constituents sent her there to do.
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