Taxing problems

April 15 was Tuesday, but the griping about taxes surely never stops. It would surprise no one that residents of Palm Beach County in general and Boca Raton in particular pay more to the IRS than people in other parts of the state and country. Now, though, we have a look at just how much more.

The Brookings Institution, as part of its continuing look into how regions of the United States compare with each other in key measures, has just released a study of federal income taxes and local property taxes. As with almost any look at such numbers, this one is interesting.

The study looks at counties, of which there are roughly 3,100 in the U.S. In terms of overall federal income taxes paid, Palm Beach County ranks 30th. Do the math, and, yes, that puts Palm Beach County in the one percent of the IRS’ favorite spots. On average, Palm Beach County residents—whether filing as individuals or married couples—pay roughly $16,000 to the U.S. Treasury.

Obviously, the “average” part matters. Those who live in the Royal Palm Yacht & Country Club probably pay more—sometimes a lot more—than those in Boca’s Golden Triangle and far more than residents of Loxahatchee and Riviera Beach. But if you want a different comparison, consider that those in Manhattan (New York County) pay about $40,000, the second-highest nationwide. The top spot goes to the one percent of the one percent who live in Teton County, Wyoming, home to Jackson Hole. They pay nearly $68,000.

If it makes you feel better, Palm Beach County doesn’t rank first even in Florida. That would be Collier County on the Gulf Coast, where one of those high-level donors to the IRS is Gov. Rick Scott. Collier ranked ninth. Monroe County was 28th, Indian River was 36th, and Martin County was 37th. The study covers 2007, for which the most recent data is available. For 2013, Palm Beach might rank even higher, since all the research shows that the wealthy have recovered much better from the Great Recession than the middle-class and down, and Palm Beach is far from a down-market area. When it comes to rankings for how much “working poor” residents get from the Earned Income Tax Credit, Palm Beach County ranks 1,822nd.

The news about property taxes, though, may not be what those in Palm Beach County expect.

Brookings calculated the average of property taxes paid from 2007 to 2011. Palm Beach County ranked near the bottom of the top third, at roughly $2,700, which ranked the county 1,076th. Westchester County, the New York City suburb, ranked first. And based on taxes as a share of home values, Palm Beach ranked just 1,076th.

Though the average federal tax bill is seven times higher, there’s plenty of griping about property taxes, because residents can see more clearly where the money goes. The local bill also gives a clear city-by-city comparison. The owner of a home in Boca Raton assessed at $400,000, for example, would pay $1,480 in city taxes. The owner of a $400,000 home in Delray would pay $3,000, because the property rolls and tax rates for the two cities are different. Adjust that number up or down, depending on the value of the home and the tax rate of the city. It’s all there on your property tax bill.

Federal tax reform, which hasn’t happened in nearly three decades, is caught up in the dysfunction of Washington and Congress. At the local level, though, change depends usually on just five elected city council or commission members. These new numbers show that cities and counties in Florida must make a persuasive case not just for the tax dollars they spend but also for the fees that can get raised even when tax rates stay flat. The City Watch blog will get into those fees over the coming weeks, as cities and the county start work in their 2014-2015 budgets.

Cuba libre time

The Cuba article in the just-out May/June issue of Boca Raton magazine should make every South Floridian demand that the United States change our failed policy toward that country.

Charles and Mary Love note that Americans can visit Cuba only under certain rules. You need the proper tour company. You need to travel under the guise of education or cultural exchange. If you just want to troll around Havana for a weekend, you can’t get there from an American airport. You must fly through a third country —Mexico, Jamaica—and by doing so, you are breaking American law, subjecting yourself most likely to a fine, although the ban makes prison a possibility.

Stupid? Sure. Americans can travel as tourists to North Korea and Iran, two members of what President George W. Bush called the “axis of evil.” I wouldn’t recommend such a trip. Iranians—especially younger Iranians—might be welcoming, but the Revolutionary Guards don’t like Americans. As for North Korea, a Korean War vet was detained there for a month last year, and it took intervention by the Swiss to get him out.

The point is, though, that Americans can make such trips, however risky. But Americans can’t visit Cuba, where the Loves report that many people welcome Americans. While Canada and some European countries seek out business opportunities in Cuba, America remains trapped by a foreign policy that is 60 years out of date, kept in place through the oversized political influence of some Cuban-American politicians in Florida.

That’s because it’s personal, in many cases. The father of U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, was speaker of the Cuban Parliament under dictator Fulgencio Batista, whom Fidel Castro deposed. Many of the early exiles gave up homes and lavish lifestyles. Our policy was designed to oust Castro. Instead, he outlasted eight presidents before turning over power to his brother. We count among our allies Germany, Japan and, to some degree, Vietnam, where we fought real wars. It’s time—especially in Florida—to end the political war over Cuba.

You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

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About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.