Tax-rate reduction a good start, but problem remains

One reason why political activists like contests for office whether they be for party nominations or in the general election is that they promote debate. No matter what might be said on this page in the coming months about any particular contest, whether by columnists or by letter-writers, the very fact that a contest for office occurs creates the possibility for debate and discussion which does not occur when there is only a single candidate.

Thus, I will do something today that you may not see again in the months forthcoming: I will say two good things about the only announced Democrat candidate for chairman of the Board of County Supervisors. It is good that there will be a Democrat candidate. And he has started a bidding war for the loyalties of county property owners/ taxpayers.

That having been said, it’s a pretty pathetic bidding war.

The news of the week from the McCoart Building has been positive, though I must qualify that assessment. Saturday’s edition of this journal contained two items of note to county taxpayers.First, it contained a legal notice reporting that the adoption of a county property tax in excess of $1.072 per $100 of assessed value would constitute an effective tax rate increase for County taxpayers. It likewise reported that the budget proposed by county staff would impose a property tax rate of $1.19 per $100 of assessed value in fiscal 2004. At least that launched the debate in the proper direction; our county property tax rate is outrageously too high.

The second was probably more significant, and appears to have been designed to draw attention away from the legal notice reporting the proposed tax increase, since it was certainly more widely read than the legalese contained in the legal notice published in accordance with state law. Saturday’s lead headline reported that, contrary to the initial budget proposals by the county staff, the Board of County Supervisors would be considering lowering the county property tax rate from its current level of $1.23 per $100 of assessed value to $1.16 per $100 of assessed value.

So, just to make sure we’re on the same page, let’s summarize. The current tax rate is 15.8 cents higher (nearly 15 percent) than necessary to maintain the current spending levels. While county bureaucrats propose a budget that would maintain the tax rate 11.8 cents higher (11 percent) than necessary to maintain current spending levels, county elected officials are proposing a budget that would impose a tax rate 8.8 cents higher (over 8 percent) than necessary to maintain current spending levels. And the Democrat candidate for chairman of the Board of County Supervisors proposes a tax rate 7.8 cents higher than necessary to maintain current spending levels.

So why are all of the powers that be or wannabe proposing property tax increases of not less than 7 percent on county taxpayers? To fund a budget that proposes to increase county spending by very near to 23 percent in one year.

As usual, the problem is spending. And the differences between those already in or aspiring to public office appear not to be in whether they will tax and spend us into oblivion, but in who will do it the fastest.

According to the Prince William Taxpayers Alliance (full disclosure here: I am on its Executive Board, though I had nothing to do with calculating the numbers), a tax rate of $1.10 per $100 of assessed value would be sufficient to increase county spending to meet population increases and inflation, as well as a modest, 5 percent budget increase. It has asked candidates to take a pledge to limit county tax (and therefore, spending) increases to that level. No one has suggested that county spending is already too high.

In fact, the only question among the candidates themselves appears to be how ridiculously higher they want spending to go. Even in last Saturday’s headline story, Republican Board of County Supervisors Chairman Sean Connaughton and School Board Chairman Lucy Beauchamp (a member of the county’s GOP Committee) didn’t propose significant reductions in the proposed increase in the county’s spending. In fact, from the numbers that they presented, the proposed increase in county spending would be reduced by only $4.1 million, or less than three-tenths of 1 percent of the county’s nearly $1.3 billion proposed budget.

Soooooo, the budget for 2004 would rise not by the $235 million initially proposed by County Executive Craig Gerhart and his staff. Instead, it would increase by “only” $231 million.

One wonders whether those kind of increases are what voters expected when they turned out long-time Board Chairman Kathleen Seefeldt in 1999 in favor of Connaughton.

Unfortunately, support for ill-advised budgetary proposals is becoming an unfortunate habit for many county elected-officials. And while, as a fiscally-conservative Republican who believes firmly in limited government, I expect Democrats reflexively to tax and spend us into oblivion, I’ve always hoped for and expected more from Republicans.

Some county elected Republicans have not distinguished themselves in this regard. Of course, Connaughton joined by Mary Hill, R-Coles, Ed Wilbourn, R-Gainesville, and Ben Thompson, R-Brentsville, voted with board Democrats to endorse the sales tax increase referendum in last year’s elections, rejected by 60 percent of county voters. Only Supervisors Ruth Griggs, R-Occoquan, and Maureen Caddigan, R-Dumfries, stood with county taxpayers on that one. And School Board Chairwoman Lucy Beauchamp has a long history of support for tax-hungry bureaucrats, having twice (in 1994 and 1995) supported a meals tax referendum on the long-since disproven theory that it (not political will) was necessary to build new county schools.

What is more disturbing is that while apparently attempting to posture as friends of the taxpayers whom they are soaking, Connaughton and Beauchamp are busily endorsing candidates for other offices who are from the same tax-and-spend-us-into-oblivion school of fiscal mismanagement.

One wonders whether any candidates will emerge who are not merely smaller pieces cut from the same tax-and-spend cloth.

An attorney, Young lives with his wife and their two sons in Montclair.

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