In defense of taxpayers

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 21, 2008

This will become something of an annual plea during budget-setting season to the elected officials who tax us.

&uot;Us,&uot; in this case, is property owners, who bear the heaviest funding burden for local governments. I don’t pretend to speak for us all, but I know that I speak for many.

Our plea is directed specifically to the county supervisors and city councilmen who set our tax rates. And if this year’s plea has a little more sense of urgency than usual, it’s for good reason: We’re all fighting to survive in a tough economy, and your actions in the coming weeks will either help us or compound our plight.

We have only ourselves to blame, but we’re the group you seem to hear the least from this time of year. You hold public hearings to get our input on your budget intentions, but we don’t show up.

Whether cynicism or apathy is to blame, shame on us.

You hear from us after the fact, of course. When we get our tax bills, we speak up. Unfortunately, it’s too late then.

But it’s not too late now. Your budgets are in various stages of development, but none has received final approval. So please hear us out.

First, an acknowledgement: You have a tough job. As controllers of the purse strings, you get tugged in many directions. While we taxpayers do a poor job of advocating for our own cause, the money-seekers, to their credit, do a terrific job.

Department heads and agency leaders want the most money they can possibly get, and they make a persuasive, sincere case for why they should get it. Government employees are a powerful special-interest group.

Many good, worthy community organizations also want a piece of the pie. They appeal to your sympathies and your human decency. It’s hard to say no. We understand.

There’s an alternative, though, to &uot;yes&uot; or &uot;no.&uot;

That alternative is &uot;not now.&uot;

When times are tough, we consumers don’t get everything we want — and sometimes not even everything we need. We make hard choices. We postpone car purchases, home renovations and vacations. We hold off on optional but helpful medical procedures. We eat out less often.

Governments should have the same mentality and forced discipline. They don’t, regrettably, because — unlike us the citizenry — they have an open spigot of income: our wallets.

High taxes restrain even the healthiest of economies. In a recessionary economy, high taxes have an absolute stranglehold.

Every dollar that goes into the tax coffers is one less dollar saved or one less dollar spent at a local business. For businesses, every dollar of taxation is one less dollar to reinvest in our employees, products or services.

Most experts agree that the economy at large will not rebound until the housing crisis subsides. Want to prolong the housing slump? Keep raising property taxes.

Want to make Franklin, Southampton County and Isle of Wight County the first to emerge from the national housing slump? Cut property taxes. An amazing thing will happen. People will have more money to spend on homes and land.

Local tax coffers will grow the right and natural way — through increased valuation, rather than through arbitrary and punitive increases in tax rates. And those worthy causes that had to wait a year or two will get their money.

We detected a bit of chest-thumping at a recent Southampton County Board of Supervisors meeting because of a proposed budget that would raise the property tax rate &uot;only&uot; 4 cents.

Sorry, but we’re not impressed.

That’s no dig at County Administrator Mike Johnson, for whom I have enormous respect. Less fiscally disciplined administrators would undoubtedly have drafted an even costlier budget, given the many demands on county funds.

But Johnson is a consummate professional who understands his role. If supervisors send him back to the drawing board, he’ll return with a document that reflects their will.

To our supervisors (and to the Franklin City Council, which has yet to make public a proposed budget), we say: Cut that tax hike in half. Better yet, eliminate it entirely. Take the proposed budget and cut until it’s uncomfortable. Then cut a little more, until it hurts a little.

That’s what we citizens are doing. In this time of sacrifice, we ask you to share our pain. Together, we will heal, as will our economy.