On municipal budgets and property tax phobia

Our town manager presented his budget recommendations for the coming fiscal year last night:

Property taxes would rise to 54 cents per $100 of valuation. That equates to an additional $45 on a property valued at $150,000.

And in the process he stepped on that third rail and was lucky to get out of the room alive. It didn't help that we had just undergone property revaluations in both counties our little border town straddles, which could have allowed our elected officials the chance to knock a penny off the 51 cents we are currently assessing. Some of the things I heard last night (from a few Democrats, no less) were borderline absurd, such as "Whenever I talk to people, they say 'please don't raise my taxes'." Yeah, no shit. If you were expecting maybe to hear an occasional "please raise my taxes," I've got a bridge to sell you. We haven't had a property tax increase in twelve years, and our population has increased about 40% during that time. Yes, that means more revenue, but it also means more costs. More policing, more water and sewer maintenance, more cleaning up yard waste, etc. I thought the town manager (and the Police Chief, when he was asked) explained the needs very well, but that just brought about some angry and short-sighted comments about "things we don't need," with each elected official bringing up their pet peeves. Strangely enough, earlier in the day at the County Commissioners' meeting, a Republican made an argument I wish I had heard last night:

Commissioner Amy Galey said county leaders over the years had a shortsighted focus on low tax rates that leaves the county and property owners with less wealth over time. The county’s tax base — the value of people’s taxable property in the county — increased from $4 billion to $10 billion since 1999, while Chatham County’s tax base has quadrupled, she said.

“We’ve got to look at more than the nickels and dimes relatively speaking of the property tax rate and take a broader look at how investments in infrastructure, and the school system, and economic development — those investments pay off over time in higher property values,” Galey said toward the end of the meeting. “I have a sense we’ve kind of cheated ourselves relative to the counties around us by focusing so precisely on keeping the tax rate as minimal as possible while not, maybe, investing in schools.”

Galey was not surprised to get pushback from fellow Republican Tim Sutton.

“What I heard you say is our taxes are too low,” Sutton said. “I couldn’t disagree more.”

Amy is (by far) the youngest member on the Board, somewhere in her late 30's. She sold me about a year ago (before she was elected), when we both took part in a brainstorming session on what the county needed to do over the next 20-30 years. Public transportation, education, health programs, etc. In other words, using public resources to improve the lives of everybody, which in turn will make our county a more enticing place for new businesses to set up shop. It ain't rocket science, but it may be something older politicians just can't grasp.

The NC Democratic Party needs to focus at least some efforts to find and nurture younger candidates for local offices. Aside from the fact this will make funding the things we need locally a lot more likely, it should also help with structural issues, like organizing precincts. I don't even want to speculate what the average age of participants was when we did that a few weeks ago, but it was pretty grey, if you catch my drift.

The thing is, while we must continue the fight to recover a majority in the General Assembly, their policies have defunded and deteriorated our local communities for several years now. It's not fair to counties and cities, but it is a fact, and we need courageous leadership on the local level to ameliorate that damage. And if we allow younger Republicans like Amy to take up that challenge instead of our own Dem candidates, we will pay for that lack of foresight in the longrun.



Confession about this particular race

The Dem candidate that ran against Amy was even younger than she is, probably mid-twenties. That being said, I was surprised to see some of his answers in a local (gossip) paper's questionnaire. Among other things, he was against the idea of funding public transportation, while his R opponent was all-in. Side by side comparisons of the two revealed she would be a bigger spender if elected, but she still won.

Probably had more to do with (County) voter demographics than spending issues, but still. If this young Democrat was trying to rope in the anti-taxers with fiscal restraint, it didn't work.