Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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Heidi in Wonderland takes the commissioners down the rabbit hole

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UNBELIEVABLE!

We believe that this will be the reaction of Alamance County residents when they learn that county administrators, with a sympathetic and largely passive reception among county commissioners, are now laying the groundwork for a 15.5 percent tax increase – that’s on top of last year’s approximately 1.4 percent increase (above the “revenue neutral” tax rate commissioners had promised to implement after revaluation) plus all the municipal post-revaluation increases that were layered on top of that!

Now, county government officials are sending up trial balloons for even higher increases for the next fiscal year that begins July 1.  And we do mean a lot higher.

As outlined at a so-called “budget retreat” on Monday, county bureaucrats envisioned a whopping 6.67-cent tax increase (or an additional 15.5 percent)! That would move the current 43.20-cent tax rate to about 49.87 cents per $100 valuation.

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First a word about this whole concept of a “budget retreat.”  This is a way for the county bureaucrats to get the commissioners away from the eyes and voices of the general public so they can lobby, cajole, and rationalize for all manner of increased spending – and taxing to go along with it.

Last year, the “retreat” was held at Alamance Community College; this week, it was the plush new digs of the elections office on South Main Street in Graham.

Neither meeting was video-recorded or broadcast online  – unlike regular meetings of the commissioners.

In fact, as best we could determine, this meeting wasn’t even audio-recorded.

But county officials used the day-long retreat as an opportunity to spring their ideas for new spending on a host of fronts.

Surely, however, the most galling comments had to have come from county manager Heidi York, who tried to extract from commissioners some sort of commitment to go along with the big-spending, high-taxing ideas she proposed during their confab.

She complained that commissioners ultimately didn’t go along with all of her proposed largesse for county spending after having heard her pitch for a 6.7 percent increase in spending at a similar retreat last year.

We said at the time she proposed last year’s budget that York must be deaf not to have heard the commissioners’ repeated vows over the preceding six-month period that they wanted a budget that would be “revenue neutral,” but she sallied forth with her big-spending proposed budget anyway.

The commissioners nipped and tucked at the manager’s proposed budget a bit over subsequent meetings, but still let her get away with increases that ultimately caused them to betray their promise to the public and adopt a budget with a tax increase beyond the revenue neutral level that they had all said they were committed to implement.

And, in essence, she won the budget match.

Bureaucrats always propose more than they think they can actually get adopted.  That way, officeholders, taxpayers, and the general public can be “grateful” that the final budget/tax rate, etc. “isn’t as bad” as first proposed. It’ll inevitably still be more than it has been, just not as high as originally suggested.

Perhaps even more brazen was York’s accusation that the budget the commissioners ultimately passed was “non-sustainable,” in that it failed to provide the revenues to cover the spending they had authorized.

She seemed to have a severe case of amnesia this week not to have remembered that many of those spending excursions she blamed for the county’s tight current fiscal constraints were the very ones she had proposed to them over the past seven months – pay raises, buying property and committing to a new EMS station and 9-1-1 center, just as a few examples.  Yet she cannot avoid her own complicity in the situation they, and she, now face.  It wasn’t just the commissioners who overspent; she led the parade.

Only John Paisley voted against the higher-tax budget last June, which passed 4-1, but even he didn’t abide by his pledge for revenue neutrality; he just didn’t like the final .20 cents worth of a higher tax rate the other commissioners added at the end of the process.

While York wanted to claim that it was the spending levels approved by the commissioners that were “non-sustainable,” to use her word, what is equally non-sustainable is for the taxpayers of this county to endure the kinds of tax and spending increases being contemplated.

There comes a point, and we think we’ve long since reached it, when someone just has to say – as politely as they can muster – we simply can’t afford to do thus and such. . . “at this time.”

We also think commissioners need to recall the old adage that “personnel is policy,” and reconsider whether York is the right person to implement the policies they want – or whether, to continue as they’ve done so far and just blithely follow her lead for more and more spending and taxing.

Heidi is like Alice in Wonderland, except she’s leading the commissioners down a rabbit hole to a fiscal oblivion.

 

The landmarks of Heidi’s Wonderland

During the retreat, York was back with one of her favorite plans –to build a new or expanded Taj Mahal judicial facility.  The only choices she presented to commissioners were, in essence, would you like a truly gigantic expansion (now “trimmed” to a price tag of $65 million to $75 million), or just a big one ($40 million to $50 million)?

Oh yes, she also included a decoy idea of whether to turn the county office building into another court building and spread the county’s staff now housed there across the county (at the cost of a mere $10 million to $15 million).  Doing so, would also put them farther out of the public’s view.

Commissioners were railroaded last year, at York’s urging, into buying an industrial building along I-85/40 for a future 9-1-1 center after last year’s budget was adopted.  Now, the “total renovation” of that building is expected to cost $25 million – $10 million more than commissioners were told at the time, by the way.  At that rate, it would have been cheaper to find farmland somewhere out in the county and build from scratch, rather than buy prime real estate along two interstate highways.

Then there’s the idea of building a new EMS station in Mebane (approximate cost of $5 million).

Again, it’s a nice idea, but it may have to fall into the category of something that just can’t be afforded – at least not yet.

And, of course, no county budget discussion would be complete without bureaucrats advocating for ever-higher salaries.  Fully half of the expected shortfall between revenues and expenses is for $8.4 million in raises for county employees – and additional employees.

Meanwhile, York sheepishly confessed that the raises she led the commissioners to adopt just last month haven’t worked at filling the hard-to-staff positions in three key departments.

But nearly everyone across all of county government has already gotten an average of a 1.7 percent pay raise and the costs have become part of the future expense for all of county government.

Now, as usual, the taxpayers will be asked to pick up the tab – not only for what’s already been authorized, but for a whole new round of increases.

 

What happened to all that extra money?

Largely missing from Monday’s discussion was much focus on the huge savings account that the county has built up – built up, we would emphasize, from overtaxing taxpayers in years past. It now stands at $46.8 million, far, far above the state-mandated requirements.

In December, commissioners heard from their auditor that $7.5 million in readily available cash had been added to the county’s savings pot. And that was just through June 30, 2023 – not counting however much is being added during the current fiscal year.

It seems to us that some of that money could be used – if it’s absolutely needed for these so-called priorities outlined during this week’s meeting.

Commissioners could, for instance, dip into that kitty to fund the EMS station, if it really needs to be built right now, as well as to pay for the unfunded balance of the 9-1-1 center (supposedly “only” $1.5 million) that won’t be covered by state funds.

Why is it that the taxpayers’ pockets are always the first place bureaucrats look for financing – rather than at resources they already have?

York has been the county manager for only about a year-and-a-half, but we’re just not sure how much longer we can afford to have her at the helm.  We can’t point to any area where she’s controlled spending (creatively or otherwise), but there are plenty where she keeps asking for more.

With an all-Republican board of commissioners, we would expect – and we certainly think taxpayers and voters would expect – a more conservative approach to local government, both spending and taxing.

We’ve often mentioned, much to the consternation of our Republican friends, that what the board really needs is one or two Democrats.  If liberal Democrats proposed or supported most of the items that county manager York and her fellow bureaucrats promoted  this week, with the correspondingly large tax increases on Alamance County property owners to pay for them, we have no doubt that a Republican majority would vote them down.

But somehow, when they all get together, the Republican commissioners seem merely to accept the tax and spend fantasies that their county manager dreams up.

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