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OPINION: Alaska should ensure its ‘blight tax’ won’t give local officials too much power

Last month, Alaska’s Senate approved a bill that would, if left in its original form, allow local jurisdictions to impose “blight taxes” on properties that are — at government officials’ discretion — deemed “blighted.” Adopting the Senate’s version of the bill would be a serious mistake. Thankfully, however, after input from the Alaska Policy Forum and my law firm, Pacific Legal Foundation, the Alaska House has put forth a revised version of the bill that addresses many of the problems in the original by placing important limits on the authority of local governments to define “blight.”

While truly blighted properties — ones that are vectors for disease, crime, and other public dangers — can be of real concern, current nuisance laws empower local governments in Alaska to force owners to fix them. Officials could use more weapons to combat blight, but blanket permission to designate anything they wish as such is simply too great a power to entrust in the hands of municipal bureaucrats.

The term “blight” must be precisely defined, and narrowly applied. If the government has carte blanche to deem properties that are far from unsalvageable as blighted and levy taxes against their owners, then local bureaucrats will possess too much discretion to control the disposition and use of private property.

For example, in 2004, Lakewood, Ohio officials tried to label an entire residential neighborhood blighted to make way for modern condos, even though many of the properties were hardly a danger to public health or safety, the most basic definition of blight. As originally written, the Senate’s bill gives local governments far too much latitude to do the same. Without limiting language — or any other definitional restrictions — local officials could call “blighted” any building they want taxed or demolished.

In a counter-example, Washington state law predefines “blight” narrowly, limiting local officials’ ability to manipulate blight designations for ulterior motives. Georgia’s constitution, likewise, empowers local governments to define blight, but provides a baseline: “at a minimum, (’blight’ is) property that constitutes endangerment to public health or safety.”

Similar to the rules in Washington and Georgia, the Alaska House’s revised bill does much to avoid the dangers of giving local bureaucrats too much control. Specifically, the House version requires that any property deemed “blighted” first be properly categorized as a “public nuisance,” “endangers public health and safety,” is “unsecured, vacant, or deteriorated,” or has “become the subject or center of repeated illegal activity.” This language limits the potential for abuse of power by local governments.

These commonsense limits will help ensure that local governments cannot call any residences “blighted” and proceed to tax the owners into selling their homes. It also importantly exempts any primary residence from the blight tax — even if it is blighted, though, presumably, a primary residence could still qualify for demolition if it truly qualifies as a public nuisance. In contrast to the Senate’s version, the House’s revised bill will go a long way in ensuring that the government can only impose the blight tax on properties that pose true threats to the public.

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If Alaska is going to use blight taxes, it must be done right. Offering a baseline definition of “blight” before handing off authority to local governments is an essential step. Striking a happy medium is not difficult, but it does take political will to prevent abuse by opportunistic local officials. Senate Bill 77 misses this mark. The latest House version, however, is right on the money. We urge the House to approve it when they vote on the bill.

Sam Spiegelman is an attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit legal organization that has defended Americans’ liberties when threatened by government overreach and abuse for the past 50 years.

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