Columbia County commissioners have plenty of good reasons to support their surprise move last Friday to raise taxes for fire service. The switch from subscription fire services to a fire tax is badly needed and long overdue.
But it can't be very reassuring to the citizenry when a plan that was headed for a referendum was instead quickly implemented without voter approval.
Let's be clear:
Commissioners have every legal right to do what they did last week when they voted, 3-2, to switch from the outdated subscriber system to one that funds the county's private fire departments through property taxes. Likewise, the courts have thus far agreed that commissioners were empowered four years ago to create the stormwater utility fee.
Among the criticisms of the stormwater utility fee is that voters weren't given an opportunity to vote on it. County officials consistently argue that a vote wasn't required because the levy is a "fee," and not a "tax." Yet now commissioners are imposing this new tax without a vote, either. What gives?
Under Georgia law, a "fee" can be imposed, without a vote, in all or part of the county; a tax can be imposed, without a vote, only on the entire county. The inevitable message here is that politicians will call a new assessment whatever they want to avoid seeking public input.
After those semantic gymnastics, some county officials argue that a referendum could fail because of the very people who have made a fire tax necessary. Though an overwhelming majority of Martinez and Evans residents pay their voluntary subscription fee, fewer than half do so in Winfield and the western end of the county.
Many non-payers would likely oppose a tax because it would mean an end to their freeloading - and there may be enough of them, coupled with large landowners whose taxes will now skyrocket, to shoot down a referendum.
That's unfortunate. But by sidestepping a showdown at the polls, county officials are, in effect, saying they don't believe the plan is good enough to win voter approval. Why not instead work to convince all voters that much-improved service is worth paying for?
Undeniably, the tax is the best way to go. In fact, it's good enough that commissioners should have had no trouble convincing voters to agree. By backing away from a referendum - where the plan had been headed all along, remember - and instead suddenly imposing the tax, commissioners may have endangered one of the county's more important sources of revenue: the sales tax.
Why? Next year, the sales tax is scheduled for voter approval, and commissioners intend to seek a substantial portion of money for fire-service improvements. County officials had better come up with a way to convince voters why their opinion, so unnecessary last week, is crucial next year.
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