Home > Thematic Areas > Local government structure > A feud over local taxes turns into a referendum on government itself

For more than a year, the residents of Amelia, just outside Cincinnati, Ohio, have been consumed by a fiery debate over a proposal to impose a new local tax of just 1 percent. This month, voters found a way around the problem — by getting rid of their 119-year-old village altogether.

In some ways, the dramatic move, which takes effect this week, reflects the frugal, small-government mind-set that permeates Amelia, a conservative community of 5,000 people where the median household income is $61,500. Many residents are reluctant to hand over any more of their paychecks to the government, even the one that picks up their leaves in the fall and plows snow from their streets through the winter.

But at a time when Americans’ trust in government is at historic lows, the fight in Amelia also shows what can happen when polarized voters decide that their government is so broken that it simply shouldn’t exist. While there might be an argument that eliminating a layer of government could result in greater efficiency, the decision in Amelia represents a shift.

The drama started last year when the village council decided to impose a 1 percent income tax on all residents and workers, without public input. Many in the village found out about the change from a letter sent in the mail only after the decision was made.

Most Americans pay no local income taxes, but the practice is common in parts of the East Coast and Midwest, particularly Ohio, where more than 600 municipalities have an income tax to help pay for local services. While Ohio’s tax burden is moderate over all, experts say the local taxes are comparatively high. According to a calculation by the Tax Foundation in Washington, a conservative think tank, the average couple in Amelia was already paying about $1,400 in state income tax, $780 in state sales tax, $130 in local sales tax and $3,300 in property taxes. The new, 1 percent income tax worked out to about $615 extra a year.

“I would think every American would say, ‘What am I getting?’” said Renee Gerber, a former council member. “What am I getting for my money?” Ms. Gerber, 57, soon launched a campaign for mayor. “We don’t want our hard-working dollars to be misspent.” she said.

But for many, the debate became not just a question of who should be running the village, but whether the village should even exist. Like other small communities across Ohio, Amelia is within a township, within a county. “That’s just too many layers of fat,” said Ed McCoy, 53, a local salesman opposing the tax. “The best way to get rid of that fat,” he said, “is to start at the bottom.”

On Election Day, the vote to disband was decisive: 893-to-419.

At least 130 municipalities across the country dissolved between 2000 and 2011, with an uptick after the start of the Great Recession of 2008, according to Michelle Wilde Anderson, a Stanford Law School professor who studied the trend. Since 2012, others dissolved or are in the process of doing so, including at least 12 in Ohio alone, according to the state auditor’s office. “It’s a very dramatic remedy,” said Ms. Anderson, who found that local governments primarily disband for financial reasons, often because shrinking populations or reduced state funding make paying for basic services unsustainable.

But Amelia was financially stable, with a population that had nearly doubled since 2000. Amelia had its own police force, with a chief and six officers who knew many residents by name. Each week, a maintenance crew picked up leaves and other waste from yards. When a deer was struck by a car, “we’d come right out and pick it up,” Mayor Hart said. Now, bigger townships will handle those kinds of services, raising fears among some residents that it could take the authorities longer to respond to drug overdoses or other emergencies.

Read the entire story: They Wanted to Save Their 119-Year-Old Village. So They Got Rid of It. (NYT, Sarah Mervosh, November 26, 2019)