I was dorking around with “By the Numbers” today. It reminded me of an assignment given to me by a former boss. He suspected major earthquakes occurred when the planets were spaced at harmonic intervals. I resented the assignment, because it was too pseudoscientific for my tastes, but it paid. We translated an old ephemerides program into a more modern language and plotted the positions of the inner planets on days of major earthquakes. We found harmonics all right, like 1:31.4 and 1:4.3. He kept instructing me to look more diligently.

With “By the Numbers,” we have local tax revenues across the state, split into property and sales taxes, and displayed by county and municipality. The purpose of the report is to help level the playing field in reporting local tax rates. Government bodies can be so tricky. For example, Buncombe County had a 3.5-cent Culture and Recreation Authority tax for a year that allowed it to post its tax rate as 3.5 cents lower. Some municipalities have higher rates because they collect garbage and sell water. Where municipalities don’t do that, money comes out of peoples’ pockets nonetheless. The report also groups munies by pop. That helps because smaller communities have such a better track record for holding it together.

Asheville, my hometown, has a combined city/county, per-person tax rate of $2078.99, that includes all the babies, but probably not homeless people hiding from the Census. Said amount is about 20% of the income most of my master’s-degree-holding friends report from waiting tables in this one-horse town of 85,339. In my opinion, Asheville is a dump. It always has been. It is rich in natural beauty which is sometimes second to none – but downtown is dirty and run-down, and Panhandling is its middle name. Sidewalks are chunky, and water pressure in some of these houses is just plain trickly. People adorn themselves with tattoos and body piercings because that’s all they can afford, and it costs too much to start up anything besides a head shop, parlor, or mystic vapor shop. Asheville’s tax burden is similar to other biggish cities around here.

We can go south to Laurel Park. Laurel Park is a tiny town that, from the outside, looks like the best of what Hendersonville offers. Hendersonville used to be a lovely place until they took to habitually tearing up Main Street. A poorer population of migrant workers took over, and things went to pot. The last time I returned to my dream apartment, it looked like it was turning into a landfill, and some scary guy waited outside in a truck. I didn’t stay. Laurel Park, which I think of as a nicely-manicured subdivision for retired millionaires, has a tax burden of $1728.49; Hendersonville’s is $1766.23. Flat Rock, another lovely community in Henderson County where I stayed briefly, has a tax burden of $1213.69.

Biltmore Forest, a ritzy community with big houses and no signs of social decay, has a tax burden of $3500.00. They must have mathematicians in their budget department to make it work out so evenly. The people pay high taxes that represent a small portion of their net worth, and they live in a nice neighborhood. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some of my favorite places on earth are handsome towns in Massachusetts and Connecticut where people are rich and they all feel good about paying what would be a chunk of money to us, but not to them, to have a wholesome, safe, and beautiful community. My favorite on the list is a place I’ve never been. The tax burden on Bald Head Island is $57,645.11.

When all is said and done, what really matters is how much we are paying for taxes and whether or not we think we are getting our money’s worth. Some low-taxing municipalities appear to be very efficient in the visible realm. Others might be tucking money into other places – like beer companies and GE. Another important consideration is that in urban centers, like Asheville, a lot of people are not paying rent, so the tax burden is carried by fewer, and we look better on paper than we are.

Also note the latest “By the Numbers” is for 2012. The lag time is due to delays in government reporting, which, no doubt, are needed for processing.