Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Who really pays the freight?


The yin and yang of Goochland is never more apparent than during budget time when everybody wants the other guy to pick up the tab for county services.

While no one really enjoys paying taxes, most of us acknowledge that we have an obligation to put something in the pot for the general good. The rub comes when someone else decides how much the contribution should be and, more important, how it will be spent.

Real estate taxes generate about half of county revenues. The school budget normally gobbles up more than that. All other local government services: law enforcement; fire-rescue (whose costs, thanks to the dedication of our fine volunteers bear little relation to the value of those services); the library (heavily used by everyone but the supervisors); animal control; parks and recreation and the convenience centers are funded by revenue sources including the county’s portion of state sales taxes, fees and so forth i.e. the scraps.

In past years, real estate assessments soared. Beginning in 2007, the land value balloon plummeted. So did county revenue, to an unprecedented degree.

Thanks to a frequently cited piece of fatuous journalism, many folks believe that Goochland is replete with rich folk. While the county does have a generous handful of super-affluent residents including professional athletes, corporate bigwigs and old money, we have many homes with no indoor plumbing and a large number of families whose meager incomes qualify their children for free meals at school.

Whenever a service is curtailed for dearth of funding, someone always wants “those rich people” to pick up the slack.

The rich people already do pick up a big piece of the tab. Those massive expensive homes on the River Road “gold coast” are taxed at full value, while landowners with large tracts of land, many of whom farm for the IRS, are taxed at land use rates.

The justification for land use is that agricultural and forestry endeavors preserve open space and cows don’t need schools. Farmers, land use taxation (LUT) advocates contend, need all the help they can get to keep putting food on the nation’s table at a reasonable cost.

Under current land use, however, only relatively large scale operations are eligible for LUT. Tiny farmsteads, whose products are sold locally, operate on paper thin margins and could really use the break afforded by LUT, are not eligible if they have fewer than five acres. Maybe the rich folk who benefit from LUT should put more into the revenue pot.

A fascinating argument for the elimination of the LUT can be found at www.soowee.blogspot.com under “Hide the Money.” Wat Ellerson has taken considerable time to research the matter and put forth some interesting observations.

The land use tax rate is computed by acre and set by the state each year, currently $220. A nice savings for the landowner, but a definite hit to the tax base.

During budget season, speakers often contend that Goochland has decided that there will be no economic development therefore the tax rate must be set high enough to fund all necessary services. Our rates, they contend, are so much lower than Henrico, whose citizens also enjoy a much wider array of public services.

In actuality, no such decision was ever made because the supervisors are incapable of planning further in the future than lunch.

Had the board in fact decided that there will be little growth in the county and had the courage to tell citizens that the tax rates will be high forever, things would be very different today.

Few of the pesky newcomers who demand good schools, better services and more transparency in government would live here. The high school middle school complex would not have been built. The library would still be crammed into the old bank building. Volunteer firefighters would be using apparatus with faulty brakes.

The problem was that the supervisors, especially the omniscient triumvirate sometimes referred to as the “three Blind Mice” and their controllers, were unable to translate the notion of economic development to enhance the county’s tax base into a workable plan of action. They ignored the need for higher density housing options including townhouses and the dreaded apartments so teachers, deputies and county employees can afford to live where they work and become part of the community.

It’s hard to know if the mess that is the Tuckahoe Creek Service District is the result of abysmal mismanagement or outright sabotage to ensure that Goochland reverts to the times when those who lived here were either very wealthy or dirt poor with the former having absolute control over the latter group.

The distress of the TCSD is the result of poor planning and dreadful execution, not a bad economy.

Those are all discussions for another day. The pressing task of the moment is crafting a budget for the next fiscal year.

The supervisors cannot increase the real estate tax rate more than four cents this year. They need to start thinking hard about next year because real estate values are expected to continue their downward trend.

It will also take years for meaningful economic development initiatives to bear fruit.

Perhaps the county should petition the General Assembly to repeal its exemption of banks from paying personal property tax. This would put more revenues in localities with the stroke of a pen.

In Goochland, Capital One would have to cough up tax revenue on all of its computers, a nice chunk of change. It seems that when the county was bending over backwards assembling incentives to bring Capital One to West Creek someone failed to notice that organization is considered a bank and would therefore pay no personal property taxes. About the only benefit Goochland realized from the advent of Capital One was the completion of Rt. 288, which is a mixed blessing indeed.

Perhaps next year the board should increase the tax rate by 25 or more cents to catch up with funding shortfalls. An increase of this sort should include a cap on the increase in the school budget to ensure that all other county services, those used by most taxpayers, are fully funded for a change.

Public education is a worthy and vital function of local government that will perpetually ask for more. Our current school board and superintendent have done little to forge a bond of trust with citizens that tax dollars are wisely and well spent. Once again they are attempting to extort more money from the board of supervisors with little justification.

The current fiscal crisis should be a wake up call for government leaders at all levels. It is time to prioritize the functions of government and fund them wisely.

In Goochland, the health, safety and welfare must come first. That means law enforcement, fire-rescue and teachers, the front line people who make a difference every day in the lives of all citizens must not be tossed aside as unnecessary expenses.

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