Bad way to raise taxes

Published 10:57 am Friday, May 11, 2012

Southampton County supervisors’ plan to charge county households $200 a year for garbage disposal is an inefficient, unfair and misguided way to balance the county’s budget.

If — big emphasis on if — supervisors have cut all waste from county government and have no choice but to raise taxes to deliver core services, those who, as candidates a few months ago, promised smaller government and less taxation need to man up, raise the personal property and real estate tax rates, look their voters in the eye and make a simple admission: “We let you down. We made a cheap campaign promise that we cannot fulfill. We apologize.”

It may not save their hides in the next election, but it’s a principled way to govern. Franklin District Supervisor Barry Porter gets the mea culpa right in a guest column elsewhere on this page, even as he clings to a bad solution.

The board has concocted a revenue scheme that disproportionately punishes the low-income and middle-income working family, that adds a new layer of bureaucracy in county government, and that puts into law an entirely new tax that is unlikely to ever go away.

The personal property and real estate tax rates are set by majority vote of the board once a year and can be easily adjusted. Conversely, a new “fee” will stay on the books until supervisors vote to abolish it. That never seems to happen in politics. New taxes, once established, have a way of becoming permanent.

If supervisors wanted to do something about the cost of waste management, the time to do it was a couple of years ago when the Southeastern Public Service Authority, the region’s garbage handler, was about to go under from massive debt and shrinking revenues. To levy a garbage fee after that crisis has passed — and, ironically, in the same year that SPSA is substantially reducing the landfill tipping fees paid by Southampton and other localities — is misguided.

We don’t envy supervisors in this difficult fiscal climate. But in trying to navigate out of a budgetary mess, they’ve taken a wrong turn. They need to quickly get back on course. It’s not too late.