Beatrice, Nebraska, giving away land to generate revenue

The roadside welcome sign for the town of Beatrice, Nebraska.

Welcome to Beatrice, Neb. Want some land? (Photo Credit: CC BY Beatrice Murch/Wikipedia)

If you give land away, people will build. Or at least that’s the hope. Beatrice, Neb., once provided public domain lands to pioneering farmers via the Homestead Act of 1862. That was during very different economic times for America. Today, town officials have drawn up their own Homestead Act of 2010 in the hopes that giving away essentially free land will generate real estate tax revenues to bolster the town’s cash reserves. Recurring property tax is something Beatrice needs more than more baseball fields and parks, reports the New York Times.

Small town America should follow Beatrice’s example

Budget deficits that hamstring the largest cities are deadly to smaller towns like Beatrice, Neb. Dayton, Ohio and Grafton, Ill., are currently on that wavelength, writes the Times. Even Boca Raton, Fla., is considering it as it faces a $7 million budget gap. Such small towns are giving away land for a nominal fee or even free of charge, hoping that will bolster the city tax register and remove the burden of lawn maintenance from the town and place it upon the shoulders of private owners. More residents would mean greater cost to extend services, but the hope is that the property tax revenue will make up for that.

Does that non-profit deserve to be tax-free?

Places like Manchester, N.H., and Concord, Mass., are pondering whether all non-profits should be exempt from taxes. Non-profit organizations that were typically given tax-exempt status are under evaluation by city leaders. Considering that 15 percent of Concord is taken up by tax exempt structures, there are many potential costs that could be made up. At what point will organizations that benefit society have to do more in order to keep their communities afloat? Private schools, churches and numerous other organizations could come into question. The need in small towns clearly exists, and the New York Times isn’t the only publication to notice this.

Beatrice was the home of the original Homestead Act

Perhaps it is appropriate that the Nebraska town is drawing attention to the property tax issue. Clearly a figurehead is needed, if the National League of Cities’ recent findings are accurate. According to that organization, “Between now and 2012, America’s cities are likely to experience shortfalls totaling $55 billion to $85 billion.” Slumps in property tax, sales tax and less state support of smaller towns means that some drastic action may be necessary. Bringing new homesteaders to Beatrice, Neb., and other small towns would likely mean new and improved homes, which  benefits the values in existing neighborhoods nearby.

Dollars and sense

Critics of the Homestead Act of 2010 and similar ventures elsewhere question whether it should be within a city’s power to dole out public land to “any non-taxpaying outsider who asks.” However, as Graton Mayor Tom Thompson told the Times, “What is the value of a lot to us if it’s empty?” The harsh reality may revolve around simple dollars and cents.

Sources:

New York Times

What is “home?”

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