If it walks like a duck…

Published 9:40 am Saturday, April 28, 2012

Surely the “no tax increase” Southampton County Board of Supervisors doesn’t think it’s fooling anybody — much less fulfilling a campaign promise — with a proposal to keep property taxes level while socking households with a $200 annual “solid waste fee.”

Surely not.

Politicians wonder why, as a professional class, they are held in such low esteem— lower even than journalists and used-car salesmen in most public-opinion surveys. Exhibit A is the budgetary shell game blessed Wednesday night by Southampton supervisors — especially the “gang of four” elected in November on a campaign promise to impose fiscal discipline in county government.

The proposed county budget is the crassest of political maneuvers: “holding the line on taxes” while grabbing $200 from taxpayers’ wallets and calling it a garbage fee. Supervisors — save for Carl Faison, who opposed the draft budget — must think their constituents just fell off the turnip truck. At least Glenn Updike acknowledged the tax hike for what it was, even as he voted to move the proposal forward.

The bottom line is this: Alan Edwards, Bruce Phillips, Barry Porter and Updike — well-intentioned, likable fellows all — made a campaign promise that they now must keep or break. It happens all the time in politics. When the fantasyland of campaigning turns into the reality of governing, elected officials are forced to backtrack.

Statesmen acknowledge the naïveté of their campaign rhetoric, man up and do what is needed. Politicians play word games and call a tax a “fee.”

There’s some embarrassment — but no shame — in the former. There’s no integrity in the latter.

It was clear from the beginning of the county’s fiscal 2013 budget talks that a mix of new revenues and spending cuts would be needed to produce a balanced and politically palatable, if not optimal, spending plan.

In defense of the current board, the current fiscal mess is largely the product of its predecessors, who failed to see — or saw and ignored — the brewing fiscal storm that should have been as obvious as an approaching Category 5 hurricane.

Just as the real estate economy was tanking, the board borrowed huge money for a sewage plant to meet mostly long-term needs. The interest tab is now due.

The board stubbornly refused to explore with neighboring Franklin substantive consolidation of services.

It adopted land-use taxation without a long-term strategy for replacing the lost revenue with spending cuts or new revenue.

On a smaller scale, it hired an assistant county administrator who even the county administrator said he didn’t need. That salary alone is a drop in the bucket, but the decision was indicative of the prior board’s mind-set.

The current board now has to get the county out of a fiscal crisis. That will require political courage that was noticeably lacking Wednesday night.

If the board wants to spread the tax burden beyond landowners and homeowners to renters (a reasonable objective, by the way), then raise the personal property tax. Don’t create an entirely new tax that will require an expanded bureaucracy to assess, collect and enforce.

Southampton County citizens aren’t fooled by semantics.

Steve Stewart is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.