Cities With Highest (and Lowest) Taxes

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Although a little late this year, due largely to the federal government’s 17-day shutdown in 2013, tax season is here. And, according to a new report, what you owe in taxes could be largely determined by where you live.

The report, released by the Office of Revenue Analysis of the government of the District of Columbia, reviewed the estimated property, sales, auto and income taxes for a hypothetical family at various income levels in 2012 in the largest city within each state. City tax burdens vary widely. A family of three earning $75,000 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, paid just $3,475, or 4.6% of its income, in state and local taxes. In Bridgeport, Connecticut, a family of three earning $75,000 paid $16,333, or 21.8% of its income — a total that does not even include federal taxes.

Not surprisingly, tax rates influence overall tax burdens significantly. This is especially true for property taxes. Seven of the cities with the highest tax burdens also had among the 10-highest property tax rates, according to the Office of Revenue Analysis. Homeowners in Columbus, Ohio, which had the fifth-highest tax burden in the nation, paid an effective rate of $3.57 for every $100 in home value, the highest such rate in the U.S.

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Click here to see where people pay the lowest taxes

Lori Metcalf, fiscal analyst at the Office of Revenue Analysis, noted in an interview with 24/7 Wall St. that property taxes tended to comprise a higher share of state and local tax burdens. Because of this, “the trend that you see in the property tax should be reflected in the overall burden.”

Another tax that is often important in determining overall tax burden is the income tax. This is especially true for cities with the lowest tax burdens, seven of which are located in states that do not have an income tax. Only one of the five cities with the lowest tax burdens, Billings, Montana, is not located in a state that has no income tax.

Yet the relationship between income taxes and higher tax burdens is not as straightforward. To highlight this, Metcalf noted that higher incomes families usually live in higher-value homes. “This means that when you pay income taxes you’ll have a larger deduction because you’ll have a larger property tax based on a more expensive home and a larger mortgage interest deduction,” Metcalf explained. As a result of this deduction, homeowners’ income tax burdens are often reduced, obscuring the relationship between income taxes and overall tax burdens.

Several factors not reviewed by the Office of Revenue Analysis, whose study focused primarily on the characteristics of tax systems, may play a role in determining tax burdens. One such potential factor is unemployment. In many cities with low tax burdens, the unemployment rate was also very low. Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Billings, Montana, had among the lowest unemployment rates in the nation in 2012. At the other end of the spectrum, Detroit, Michigan and Providence, Rhode Island had both hefty tax burdens and high unemployment.

A number of the cities with the lowest tax burdens were located in states that are considerably less densely populated, such as Alaska, Wyoming, and South Dakota. Even some of the cities themselves are in less densely populated metro areas. Birmingham, Alabama, had one of the lowest tax burdens in the U.S. and was located in the the least densely populated metro area of any reviewed. By comparison, many of the cities with high tax burdens are located in more densely populated parts of the country, such as the Northeast.

While this falls outside the scope of the report, it is possible that the reason areas with low population density have lower tax burdens is because the cost of running these cities is less. Local governments with fewer residents can spend less on government services. As a result, the government does not have to make as much in taxes.

Several low tax burden cities were also located in states that had a relative abundance of fossil fuels, including oil, natural gas, and coal. Houston, Texas, is located in the nation’s top state for oil and natural gas production. Cheyenne is the largest city in Wyoming, which accounts for a large portion of the nation’s coal output. A 2012 study by the National Conference of State Legislators found that Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming, all of which have cities with low tax burdens, relied on taxing oil and gas activity for much of their revenue.

Based on the Office of Revenue Analysis’ report: “Tax Rates and Tax Burdens in the District of Columbia — A Nationwide Comparison,” 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the cities where a hypothetical family of three in different income brackets had the highest and the lowest combined tax burdens. To calculate tax burden, the report identified four different types of taxes: income, property, automobile, and sales. The report examined tax systems in the largest city in each state, as well as in Washington, D.C. All estimates are for the 2012 fiscal year. Median housing value and median income data used by the report to determine property value are for metro areas. When two cities were located within the same metro area, county level data was used. 24/7 Wall St. also reviewed income figures for these areas from the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as area unemployment rates as of 2012 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These are the cities with the highest (and lowest) taxes