Tuesday, May 21, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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No progress on cutting county manager’s proposed tax hike; in fact, regression

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Alamance County property owners might as well get ready now to fork over more of their hard-earned money for higher county property taxes.

County commissioners met this week with county manager Heidi York, who unveiled her spending and taxing plan last week – with a 7 percent increase in spending over the budget adopted last year and a 6.7 percent increase in the tax rate, above the “revenue neutral” level.

Now commissioners have spent the better part of six months bloviating to voters in meeting after meeting – during their semi-monthly meetings and in conversations across the county – how committed they were to achieving a tight enough budget to get a revenue neutral tax rate.

But. . . wait for it.  This week commissioners were wringing their hands – again and again. “We just don’t know how we’re going to find a way to trim the budget to get to ‘revenue neutral,’” they almost universally whined.

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They just couldn’t find any way to cut York’s spending program by $7 million – the reduction in her increased spending necessary to get down to a revenue neutral tax rate.

In fact, they couldn’t agree on a single item to cut from her spending plan – by even one dollar! The best they could do was, at the commendable suggestion of commissioner Bill Lashley, propose tapping into the local school system’s capital reserves (which have grown by more than promised to the school system), but even that reform could get them barely a third of the way to revenue neutrality.

As we noted last week, York has single-handedly put the commissioners in their current bind.  A shortcoming that we think calls for a review of her failing job performance.

Here’s the commissioners’ dilemma: Now that the county manager has put her budget proposal out there for the world – and all county, school, and other bureaucrats – to see, all of those special interests are going to be up in arms if anyone (i.e., a majority of commissioners) tries to curb the spending – such as 5 percent pay raises for county staff and another kitty with 3 percent set aside for potential “merit” raises.

Pam Thompson was up to her usual Democrat-like ways – saying there wasn’t a single expenditure she wanted to see reduced.  And blaming the other commissioners for having passed two 1-cent property tax rate cuts each of the previous two years – both of which she voted against.  (Oh, yeah, Thompson is ostensibly a Republican, too; she just doesn’t always act like one.  In fact, her latest campaign chant is a tirade against the county’s revaluation, even as she apparently supports the manager’s proposed budget with a significant property tax increase using all that revenue – and more.)

Vice chairman Steve Carter, also ostensibly a Republican, voted against the first penny tax cut (in 2021), as well.

But frankly, it was hard to find more than about one-and-half really conservative Republicans on the board of commissioners this week.

It was as though the commissioners are . . . dare we say it. . . talking out of  both sides of their mouths.

Oh, they’re all for a revenue neutral tax rate . . .until they’re not.

Board chairman John Paisley, Jr. was the one who first uttered the ultimate heresy this week, suggesting that, rather than cutting spending to a “revenue neutral” rate, instead he and other commissioners might consider an “inflation neutral rate,” which allows for a creep of roughly $2 million in higher property taxes – our description, not his.

Paisley went on to utter an absolute revisionist rewrite of recent history: “I would like to bring us down to revenue neutral – adjusted by inflation,” he said at one point in the meeting, “because that’s what we promised our voters.”

No, Mr. Chairman, you and other commissioners have consistently promised  A REVENUE NEUTRAL TAX RATE. Period. Exclamation point.

There’s been no asterisk, or caveat, of providing a $2 million “cushion,” or inflation hike.

None.

Never.

Until this week.

County commissioners Steve Carter and Craig Turner were on the ballot last year.  In response to an Alamance News questionnaire prior to the GOP primary – and again during the general election – all candidates were asked whether they would support a “revenue neutral”tax rate following the county’s revaluation. Both responded, seemingly straightforwardly, “yes.”

Their elaborations were equally reassuring.  Carter (prior to the May Republican primary) said: “My focus, try to do as much as we can to provided needed services, while being fiscally responsible and conservative. Our county is growing rapidly, as is our tax base, thus providing funding that I would like to see sustain our needs. My mantra, ‘Taxed enough already.’”

Amen, brother Carter.

So far this budget season, however, Carter seems to have forgotten his 2022 mantra.

Carter’s adherence to revenue neutral was already fading by November.  He hedged his “yes” answer on the general election questionnaire with the following: “Currently not sure that will happen; keeping an open mind.”

Which serves as a reminder: Beware when ostensibly conservative politicians threaten to have an “open mind” about tax increases.

Similarly, commissioner Craig Turner elaborated on his overall tax-and-spend philosophy in response to our questionnaire: “Alamance County should have a low tax rate so that individuals, farms, and other businesses can keep more of their hard-earned income which is especially important in times of high inflation, and so that we are an attractive community for growth and business development, which will increase the tax base.”

Let us remind him and other commissioners of one of his reasons for keeping tax rates low; it is “especially important in times of high inflation.”

So far, the only people who are seeing any positive impact from inflation are county employees, who stand to get across-the-board 5 percent raises (costing $3.66 million) and another $1.3 million or so for potential “merit” raises, based on York’s generous spending program.

It was interesting this week to remember  what some of the commissioners who couldn’t find any savings in York’s budget were saying in January.

Carter: “I don’t think there’s anybody on this board who signed up to do that [raise taxes].”

Paisley: “If you guys do something like that [raises taxes], I don’t even want to know you.”

Thompson: “We’d have to be in the witness protection program [if we raised taxes].”

But January seems a long time ago now that May’s rolled around – and with it an actual budget proposal.

To make matters even worse, at this week’s meeting, which was  supposedly dedicated to finding ways to trim the manager’s budget, Paisley was ruminating on ways to increase it by adding back a taxpayer-financed “family insurance contribution” for health insurance.

As we’ve repeatedly noted over many years, most private and public sector employers (government at even the state and federal level, for instance) cover the employee, but not his or her family members.  Re-opening the door to dependent coverage would result in an enormous, multi-million dollar expense, and moves in an entirely wrong direction.

We also continue to observe that county workers don’t even consider the higher amounts that taxpayers already must pay to subsidize the employees’ health insurance as a “benefit.”  It’s taken for granted, and then they still want ever-higher pay – on top of health and retirement benefits.

 

And while we’re at it, let’s just violate the state’s Open Meetings Law

Oh, and when commissioner Lashley questioned York’s inclusion of $400,000 for a subsidy to build a hangar at the Burlington-Alamance Airport for LabCorp, other commissioners and York were quick to say the commissioners had already committed to the project.

Well, if they have, they did so by violating North Carolina’s Open Meetings Law.

We’ve covered every county commissioners’ meeting.  There has been no vote in an open meeting, as required by law, on any such subsidy for the airport or LabCorp.

Oh, we’ve pretty well known they were talking about the idea behind closed doors, based on the chamber of commerce personnel who were included in their closed-door pow-wows and the inclusion at least once of the airport executive director Dan Danieley.

But while the Burlington city council has actually voted on its much larger subsidy ($2.2 million), the commissioners – as far as we remember or can tell from the public record – have not, at least not legally (in public).

But then, what’s an unauthorized expenditure of $400,000 when you’re spending $114 million in property tax revenue?

 

Not closed doors, but not very open, either

So, dear reader, you may, by now, really like to hear for yourself what the commissioners said during their two-hour huddle with the county manager this week. Perhaps you’re skeptical of our interpretation (in this editorial) or our rather lengthy objective news coverage beginning on page 1.

Sorry, you’re out of luck.

Even though the county has spent thousands of dollars on audio visual equipment, the commissioners’ Tuesday afternoon confab with the county manager was not broadcast on the county’s streaming channel.

In fact, it wasn’t even recorded so that anyone could listen to what was said, even if they couldn’t see the commissioners in action – not even after the fact.

This is not good government.

There has been far too much back channel communication among and between commissioners and the county manager, as we have warned for many months.

In fact, we have to voice our increasingly strong suspicions after hearing this week’s public discussion that perhaps county manager York had, in fact, gotten private winks and nods from most commissioners, before she released her budget, that her tax-and-spend intentions well above the revenue neutral level were acceptable to them.

If she did, it means commissioners who had repeatedly pledged fealty to “revenue neutral” taxing and spending have, instead, misled the public.

But as several of our more jaded readers asked last week, “and you’re surprised by that, why?”

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