Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Kudos for a (half-hearted) rollback of property tax hikes

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Our commendations to Burlington’s city council and a majority of Mebane’s city council for making modest improvements in the property tax rates proposed by their respective city managers.

In Burlington’s case, we suspect it will be difficult for the city’s  populace to work up much enthusiasm over the council’s decision to cut the city manager’s proposed increase in property taxes from 21.3 percent to 18 percent, which is $5 million MORE than the revenue neutral rate that would’ve wiped out the city’s financial windfall from the county’s latest property tax revaluation.

“Revenue neutral,” by the way, would still have provided a couple of million dollars more than the city received during the previous year since the calculations used to determine this ostensibly break-even rate include some extra slack to reflect the “natural growth” that would’ve occurred even without the county’s reval.

But it’s no surprise that a whopping property tax increase would be part of the equation when you’re recommending an increase in spending of almost 14 percent (!), as city manager Craig Honeycutt did in his proposed budget for Burlington.

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Yet we’re quite sure that the city’s bureaucrats were pleasantly surprised that not a single citizen turned up to speak out against this budget during a public hearing on Tuesday night.

It’s our unfortunate conclusion that at least one contributing factor to the public’s apparent indifference is the widespread belief – which is probably quite accurate, but another regrettable presumption – that it wouldn’t do much good to protest the city’s imposition on taxpayers.

Burlington’s council seems to be enamored of its staff and pretty much done what the staff has laid out for them – both in its response to the budget and in its kneejerk acceptance of other financial entanglements. [See separate editorial on exorbitant and unrealistic proposed recreation expenditures.]

In Mebane, at least a handful of citizens did show up to voice their concerns, but more importantly, it was clear that many more had bent the ears of city council members, at least a majority of whom  listened and were empathetic with their plight – at least enough to make some, though a very modest, dent in the tax hike.

In both cases, however, we believe council members were much too deferential to their staffs.

Council members Jonathan White, Sean Ewing, and Montrena Hadley are to be congratulated for bucking city hall by trimming a penny from the tax rate – even if they could have done more.

Before Tuesday’s vote on Burlington’s budget, mayor Jim Butler said, “I feel much more comfortable about [the modified rate] than where we were [with the city manager’s original recommendation].”

Yet, during a work session on Monday, Butler had suggested cutting about 3 cents from the proposed tax rate hike, but he allowed the staff to whittle that down to 1.37 cents by Tuesday night’s city council meeting – and he tolerated seemingly without objection staff members disregard for his earlier direction.

We very much suspect that Butler’s “comfort” with the slightly reduced tax hike will prove small consolation for property owners across the city who are going to be hit with astronomical property tax bills.

Both councils left in hefty raises for their municipal staffs in the budgets they passed – 6 percent in Mebane, 4 percent in Burlington.  And both left in plenty of other new spending.

We expect that neither council has felt the full wrath of its citizens, yet.

Wait until the tax bills actually start arriving in the mail.

When the theoretical increases become actual invoices, we suspect there’ll be a whole new layer of dissatisfaction.  And a new level of intensity.

Another factor that could add to the public’s chagrin is the possibility that the county commissioners will follow through on their pledge to adopt a “revenue neutral” property tax rate for the county as a whole.

It’s by no means a done deal yet, but commissioners still say they’re serious about wanting to curb the tax hike in their manager’s proposed budget and bring it down to a “revenue neutral” level, as they have promised to do for months.

That will make the “context” of the municipal property tax hikes all the more intolerable – with an 8 percent increase in Mebane and an 18 percent leap in Burlington above the revenue neutral standards for each city.

Residents will inevitably wonder: why can’t cities live within their means if the county itself can?

Frankly, we’re imaging that both Mebane and Burlington have set themselves up for lively election seasons this fall.

Residents may not have turned out in droves for Mebane’s public hearing (or at all for the hearing in Burlington), but we expect some of them will turn up at the Board of Elections at the beginning of the campaign season to file challenges against city council members who didn’t do enough to curb municipal government excess.

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