Now’s not the time to hike county taxes

Published 8:57 am Wednesday, April 20, 2011

by Ash Cutchins

As I sit on the hard oak bench and listen during the Southampton County budget meetings, a quote comes to mind.

It has now morphed into what is called an earworm, and it keeps playing over and over and over in my mind. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”

Many of you may recognize those words, which are in the opening sentence of “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens. I think it was required reading when I was a senior in high school. It might still be. I don’t know.

The novel is about the French Revolution and it is centered in Paris and London. Economically speaking, times were hard in England when Dickens wrote the novel, which is mainly about the French Revolution, which had occurred some 60 or 70 years earlier, when times were very hard indeed.

The French Queen, Marie Antoinette, is quoted as saying, “If the peasants have no bread, let them eat cake.” Brave Frenchmen were revolting against a tyrannical monarchy, not unlike our forefathers, who had done the same thing a few years earlier, starting with the first Tea Party.

Many Americans today have revived the Tea Party, meaning Taxed Enough Already!

However, it is beginning to look like the worst of times in my recollection, at least since World War II, when I can remember my dad using gas ration stamps and my mom letting me squeeze the orange food coloring into our white margarine because butter was not available.

I can say with certainty that it does not appear to be the age of wisdom, as with each passing day it begins to look more and more like the age of foolishness. It was reported during an April 13 budget work session that one in seven residents of Southampton County participates in the food assistance program (formerly food stamps, but now some sort of credit or debit card).

If that number is correct, it calculates to more than 2,500 citizens. Many of our neighbors are unemployed or underemployed, and many others are losing their homes due to foreclosures.

And yet, our preliminary budget indicates that a 3-cent increase in the real property tax rate is forthcoming. Like the federal government, which during my lifetime has continued to spend money it does not have, so does our local government continue to do the same.

And (as usual), they turn to the honest, hard-working and responsible taxpayers to come up with funds to cover the deficit.

During the worst of times it appears to me that sacrifice should be the order of the day. We should all have to share in the sacrifice, make do with less. I know I have had to make financial adjustments as my 2010 business income took a 42 percent nosedive from 2009.

As one of my major business expenses — gasoline — climbs daily, I have foregone much discretionary spending, as I am sure many of my neighbors have also done. And yet it looks like many Southampton citizens now consider real property taxes as discretionary.

As of March 1, our delinquent taxes were $1.1 million. Some individuals owe as much as $27,000-plus just for 2009 and 2010. Some individuals owe unpaid taxes as far back as 1991 — 20 years in arrears. Many of our neighbors owe back taxes exceeding $10,000. Is this the worst of times and the age of foolishness, or what?

Collecting a mere 10 percent of the delinquent $1.1 million would almost cover the additional $130,000 requested by the school system. Collecting another 10 percent would more than cover the local funds requested by the sheriff for courthouse security. Collecting 6 percent would cover the salary of our new assistant county administrator. Collecting 100 percent of these unpaid taxes would almost cover the amount the county is taking from the reserve fund.

The draft budget is available online. It is not entertaining. It is not easy reading, but I encourage all citizens to review it.

Another budget meeting is scheduled for 6:30 a.m. today, April 20, at the county government building in Courtland. The next Board of Supervisors meeting is 8:30 a.m. Monday, April 25.

The Citizens for Responsible Government is having another meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 26, in the county board meeting room.

I urge you to attend these meetings and become more informed about the county’s financial situation. Let your supervisor know how upset you are about unpaid taxes and the pending tax increase for those of us who actually pay.

The largest groups in attendance at the most recent county budget meetings were those who stood to benefit the most with pay raises and other county expenses. If you are like many other citizens, those of us whose taxes will increase with few if any visible benefits, and you do not let your views be known, then you will have no reason to be upset with your tax increase.

Our elected local leaders need to see that these are, indeed, extraordinary times, and decreasing spending while maintaining taxes at the current level is the extraordinary measure they should take.

ASH CUTCHIN lives in Courtland. He is a certified general appraiser. His e-mail is