Browsing national real estate listings for “castles,” I found my dream house. It’s a three-story stone mansion in Albany — New York’s state capital — built in 1892 for local businessman Charles Ledow. It’s in splendid condition, with 11 bedrooms, 2½ baths and 26 total rooms.
For a Victorian mansion fanboy (that would be me!), it has everything. Picture multiple tile fireplaces, extraordinary oak woodwork, radiant stained glass, spectacular staircases, bay windows and a three-story turret. Imagine 8,500 square feet of splendor set on a 27,000-square-foot lot with park and water views. True, there are a few negatives: The kitchen needs to be recreated, there’s an attached carport but no garage and the bathrooms are less than baronial. Yet if you want to live in a 19th-century architectural masterpiece, you have to make allowances.
And the asking price of $799,000 seems absurdly low. If we sold our present house we might be able to swing it, even though such a move would make little sense and put us deeply in debt.
What’s the catch? First, it’s in Albany.
“We’re not moving to Albany,” said my wife, Karen. “We’re not even talking about it. It’s really cold and snowy in the winter, hot and humid in the summer. And I know you love that place, but it’s old and spooky — it’d be like living in a horror movie.”
I understand. Maybe she’d change her mind if we looked at the place. But there’s another problem.
According to Coldwell Banker, annual estimated property taxes for the house (located, if you want to check it out, at 10 Thurlow Terrace) are $21,278. By contrast, a house with a market value of $799,000 in my present 80904 zip code would have an annual property tax bill of approximately $4,187.
With property taxes so high, do Albany residents get a break on sales tax? Nope — with a combined state/county tax rate of 8 percent, they pay only slightly less than the 8.25 percent rate paid by Springs residents. And New York’s state income taxes are higher than Colorado’s 4.63 percent, leaping quickly up to 6.45 percent on incomes of more than $21,300 and topping out at 8.82 percent.
As Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights author Douglas Bruce figured out many years ago, absent external checks, tax rates rise steadily in order to accommodate increased government spending.
Much of that spending is necessary and proper, but it’s interesting to note that there was no city sales tax in 1960. Liberals, moderates and even a few conservatives might complain that TABOR unnecessarily restricts our ability to fund local and state governments, but maybe the Dougster had a point. To the extent that wages, salaries and property values rise in tandem with tax increases, everything is rosy. Public employees get generous pensions, public schools and colleges get funded, and transportation needs are met.
But what happens to high-tax cities when capitalism’s bounty slows? Tax receipts drop, tax rates increase, employment shrinks, crime rises and residents flee.
Don’t like it? Blame economist Joseph Schumpeter.
“The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation — if I may use that biological term — that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one,” wrote Schumpeter in 1942. “This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.”
The once-mighty U.S. Steel makes less steel today than it did in 1902 and was kicked off the S&P 500 in 2014. Albany hasn’t taken the kind of hit that other Eastern and Midwestern cities have, thanks to lavish state-funded spending, but the city’s population dropped from 135,000 in 1950 to 98,500 in 2010.
So when we consider worthy new taxes, be they for stormwater, parks, state transportation, education or anything else, let’s be careful.
Cities, like those who live in them, are mortal. One day we may become the Detroit of the Rockies, undone by military downsizing, climate change, political turmoil or industrial evolution. And high taxes will only hasten the process.
Meanwhile, I’d still like to live in a vast stone mansion, firmly anchored in the 19th century, and watch through my stained glass windows as the world flickers by. Maybe buy a lottery ticket?