Monday, February 6, 2023

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

Oh, just by the way. . . get ready for a property tax increase

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As we’ve often noted on this page, many of our irritations and frustrations with local public officials and the boards on which they serve is not so much with the decisions they make as with the manner in which they make them.

In particular, we continue to find fault with sneak attacks on the taxpayers of any jurisdiction.

Most recent victims of such an ambush are the citizens of Burlington.

Monday night last week, Burlington city council members were briefed, during a so-called “work session,” on a package of proposed increases for the city’s police force, as well as additional “benefits” that would apply for all city employees – primarily increases in sick leave and parental leave, with increasing generosity based on years of longevity.

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While a few of the dimensions of the package had been mentioned in earlier council meetings, the magnitude of the final proposal was huge.

Just 24 hours later, these expensive pay raises, totaling $2.1 million, were blithely slipped onto a so-called “consent” agenda at the council’s regular semi-monthly meeting the next night; a “consent agenda is a list of ostensibly noncontroversial or minor items, which are typically adopted en blanc at the beginning of the meeting, often with little or no conversation.

We don’t consider $2.1 million in increased spending – and in the middle of a fiscal year – to be either minor or noncontroversial.

Now, maybe it is true, as city officials and ultimately council members contended, that they had “little choice” but to make the new pay raises in an effort to stem the flow of officers leaving the department for greener fields – i.e., higher-paying jobs – at other law enforcement agencies to the east and west of the city.

We certainly acknowledge that the shortage of law enforcement officers in many local jurisdictions – and frankly across the state and nation – is a serious problem, one largely brought on by the anti-police movement following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020.

But it seems to us that, at a minimum, the citizens deserve to have more than a day’s notice – actually no “notice” at all was given of their planned avalanche of new pay.

Burlington’s council has been merrily spending money over the past year on a host of proposed items.

During last Monday’s work session, for instance, the council also agreed to add about $600,000 to a grandiose “entertainment venue” at the city’s baseball stadium, bringing the total price tag to $2.6 million.

Earlier this year, the council seemed equally smitten with a proposal to supersize a proposed expansion of the Paramount Theater, which would raise the total cost of this project to $4.5 million.

We weren’t sure the first levels of spending for these projects were a wise investment for Burlington taxpayers.  We have even less confidence now that the proposed expenses have increased.

And, we might add, even these new levels are before the inevitable cost overruns that seem increasingly to plague municipal projects.

It has always seemed to us that most local government spending should focus on services and programs that serve the greatest number, and proportion, of the citizenry.  “Essential services,” such as police, fire, trash pickup, water and sewer lines, having paved roads and plenty of sidewalks (either new or repaired), are fundamental aspects of a local municipality’s budget, and appropriately so, since they serve all citizens.

The idea of building some fancy stadium “enhancement” that, at most, will benefit a few thousand baseball enthusiasts seems a rather frivolous expenditure of precious tax dollars.

While its supporters seem to think the “venue” will allow more year-round events, we very much doubt it.

We already questioned whether this project was truly essential, all the more so given the subsequent discussions about the price tag for the police pay raises.

Predictably, however, the pool of “free money from Washington” is now running low.  Soon, the city will no longer have a ready reserve of cash for discretionary projects – much less for crucial endeavors that taxpayers actually want.

So, the city manager casually mentions in one brief aside, almost as a footnote: oh, by the way, these police salary increases will cost the equivalent of 4 cents on the property tax rate.

Four cents!  That would amount to about a 6.7 percent increase in Burlington’s property tax rate – in one fell swoop.

It was the first time there has been any mention of a potential tax impact from these new, higher salaries and benefits.

We think citizens should have been apprised of that possibility before the council obligated those funds.

And before it obligated all sorts of additional spending for other questionable purposes.

And whether the 4 cents will be in the form of additional taxation was left somewhat vague (probably deliberately), but we suspect we, and taxpayers, know the ultimate answer: their taxes will go up.

When city councils are considering certain significant issues – zoning changes, for instance, or the annual budget – state law requires that the public be notified, that there be a public hearing. There is a phased, deliberative process – both the council’s deliberations and for the public to weigh in with their views or concerns on the matter.

Not ambushes.

The more structured, deliberative process allows the public either to come to a council’s public hearing and speak formally, or to pick up the phone to talk with one of the council members about their concerns.

But in some of these newest instances, city officials are proposing expenditures for single initiatives that are as large or larger than the increased spending proposed in a typical annual budget with absolutely no notice to the public whatsoever.

Any why, we continue to wonder, must all of these projects be considered and acted upon conclusively in the middle of the budget year, rather than in conjunction with the traditional budget season and the presentation and adoption of a budget?

We think it’s just the latest governmental fad in order to avoid greater scrutiny of their spending plans.  Consideration in a vacuum probably nets a more favorable result than being compared (at budget time) with other, truly essential city services and limited resources to pay for them.

Maybe Burlington’s residents really don’t care how high their taxes go.  If so, they’ll be the only citizens we’ve ever heard of who don’t mind that more and more of the money in their pockets is being diverted to higher and higher property taxes.

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