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Tax No-How

By Stephanie Dunlap · April 11th, 2007 · There But For Grace
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I haven't done my income taxes yet. Probably I'll get money back; if I owe, I guess I'll figure something out on the 16th.

Same with buying gas. I don't exert myself to scout out the cheapest in the city.

I've made attempts, such as the last time I ran out of gas. The temperature was 8 degrees and I'd passed up a run of stations because their prices were 10 cents higher than some I'd seen, uh, somewhere else.

Later my car sputtered and died on I-71. A friend filled a plastic gas can at I-don't-know-what price per gallon, drove to where I sat stranded and then followed me to a station where I paid 20 cents more than 10-cents-per-gallon-too-much. I bought her and myself conciliatory coffee.

Forgiving friends, reliable transportation and heated fingertips = priceless. Yet the whole fiasco cost me more than if I'd just put some gas in my tank when I had the chance.

So this is the lesson I chose to learn: overly concerning myself with money is just not in my stars right now.

I suppose I could instead choose to work harder at being smart about savings. But I'm trying to be conscious of how I spend my energy, and scraping pennies just makes me feel more helpless and fearful. It's only money.

Taxes are the same: I try not to worry too much about them. This weekend I'll calculate my income taxes as quickly as possible, seal the envelope or click the mouse and be done with them for another year.

Next year, I always think, I'll do this earlier. Maybe actually itemize.

Some will say that it's people like me, foolishly surrendering money we could wrest back, who permit the government an entitled, bloated recklessness. Well, it's people who argue with harried, underpaid grocery store cashiers over price checks who shatter my serenity -- and I find that more aggravating.

I recently watched a friend spend 15 minutes trying to salvage an unused 39-cent stamp from a ruined envelope. How do I calculate my worth per minute? Is my value, like my taxes, based on my income or the things I buy?

This is my general attitude toward paying taxes: Do what you gotta do, don't mourn lost money and get on with the important things.

It's the same with spending my taxes. My opinions about how various government bureaucracies invest my money aren't shaped by any overriding philosophy so much as by case-by-case considerations of the people who are going to be served and how the people who will do the serving plan to do it.

Give me some good reasons we have to do something and good ways to do it, and I won't sweat the money; let's get on with it. I look for sincere, trustworthy advocates fronting solid arguments about why this or that endeavor needing tax support is good for my city, my state, my country.

Would I have voted for the stadium tax if I'd been in Cincinnati back in the late 1990s? I'd like to think I wouldn't have been duped, but I'm not that special. Our bad. We learn what we can, try for a refund and move on.

I've read treatises from people who adamantly arm, man and defend their positions on taxes. Often they're elected leaders, and that seems a fine deal by me. I vote for you, and then if you get elected I trust you to handle parts of public and tax policy I just don't have room in my life to fully research, craft and sell.

If I didn't vote for you, it'll be a harder sell. But I'm listening.

I didn't trust ousted Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich's jail tax proposal largely because I didn't trust Heimlich himself. He and his friends seemed to be working the system for some angle.

I do trust commissioners Todd Portune and David Pepper to be thoughtful, humane and honest, so I'll probably support the jail tax they decide to propose.

Now some local entities and coalitions are starting to murmur about needing "permanent dedicated revenue streams," including the arts community, Cincinnati's parks system and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

I'm mostly concerned about the "how" of spending this money. Will the arts focus on being accessible and relevant? Will the parks remember to serve those who most need pockets of fresh air and greenery in their lives? If tax sales pitches are backed by honest people saying compelling things, I'll probably buy in.

I feel much less sympathetic and generous toward noble institutions that can't quite get it right. In theory the Freedom Center is a noble enough venture; I respect many of the people involved. But now, bowed by reports of bloated executive salaries following false assurances that it would be self-supporting, it might seek millions in yearly public support.

You can sell me on most anything having to do with healing instead of killing people, but I'm not sure I'll go for that.

The how of the Freedom Center has seemed off-kilter since its inception. (One prescient friend has long called it "that giant sucking sound on the river.") How can a healthy museum be geographically removed from the local population whose ancestors it features? The admission price is also steep for a place that addresses economic slavery.

Early chatterings from various arts and parks advocates don't yet mention additional taxes, instead making passing, mollifying references to diverting money from funding streams already in place. But what would those diverted funds leave dry?

While the knee-jerk Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes draws up more hysterical (and sometimes validly critical) press releases, I'll wait to hear from the people representing the various angles on each proposal.

Seeking to trust my intuition about people and their intentions instead of falling back on formulas and ideologies is an imperfect, frustrating and sometimes just plain dumb philosophy. But for me, the "how" trumps "how much."

I'd rather try to figure out how to work in community than save my pennies and figure out how to work the system.

It's only money. Please use whatever part of mine I don't get back this year to do what you gotta do, learn from but don't obsess over the losses and get on with the important things.



CONTACT STEPHANIE DUNLAP: letters(at)citybeat.com. Her column appears here in the second issue of each month.
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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