Columbia County commissioners re-cently approved an operating budget for next year that spends $39.9 million, $7 million more than the current years budget.
The extra money comes from increased property values. If your house is worth more, you pay more taxes.
County officials are usually quick to point out that they havent raised tax rates. But your house is worth more now, so your bill is higher.
As a result, well soon witness the annual ritual of breastbeating that comes when the city and county governments and the school system are forced by state law to run ads in this paper, the cities and countys legal organ, notifying citizens of a Tax Increase.
Sure, the paper makes money off this misery. Still, somethings goofy when local governments apologize because your house has become more valuable.
Think about it. Sure, the screaming Tax Increase ads wouldnt be necessary if the county cut services enough to refund the increased value of county property. But they wouldnt be needed, either, if property values were stagnant.
Just imagine buying a home, deciding to move after a few years and finding the value hadnt increased a penny. You may as well have invested in the stock market.
Naturally, we want our largest single purchase to increase in value over time. When it does, we cant rightly complain as the taxable value increases, too.
So I rarely quibble when taxes rise along with property value. It means my investment has grown (unlike my retirement fund, which relies heavily on picking the right six lottery numbers).
Thats not to say taxpayers cant argue about how some of the money is spent:
The county is paying more than $41,000 to send a high-tech camera truck all over the county to take pictures of streets and intersections. It sounds like somebodys been playing with high-tech toys too much.
Tax dollars will burn this year and next as the county pays for at least three fireworks shows (including the recent Memorial Day show, of which I am an organizer). Fortunately, this money comes from hotel/motel taxes, intended for tourism and community events.
The county is thinking about buying mosquito poison and then selling it, at cost, to residents who want to treat their own stagnant water. The same stuff is available at local stores. Should the county, even in the name of public health, be undercutting private business?
The truth is, anyone poking at the numbers can find something to question, but overall the county does a good job of keeping costs down while providing the services its citizens demand.
In the school system, which on Tuesday will approve a $119.6 million budget for next year, some citizens are in-deed demanding more services. Elementary foreign language is at the top of my list, and the money is there to pay for it without asking taxpayers for another dime.
The state says local school systems should keep a reserve fund equal to 15 percent of their budgets. For Columbia County, thats $18 million. But the school system heads into the next year with a reserve of $24 million.
Whats that extra $6 million for? Are we saving up to buy a pony or something?
Its tiring to hear grumpy people complain generically about government waste, while demanding their own government services. But Im also weary of our school system poor-mouthing about what we cant afford, while sitting on a fat nest egg.
We need to use the money taxpayers have already invested by building on the elementary foreign language program - as a county study recommends - or give that $6 million back to taxpayers.
Otherwise we might as well pay for some more fireworks. At least thats fun to watch.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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