County officials will soon start the annual ritual of holding hearings to discuss the upcoming year's budgets.
The hearings are a necessity of state law, which mandates that local governments declare they've raised taxes and explain why they aren't giving property owners a break. We've been critical of this law in the past; it was designed by a then-Democratic controlled state Legislature to create public relations problems for fast-growing and largely Republican counties.
In essence, the law requires counties where property value rises to either cut taxes by the amount of reassessments, or declare they're raising taxes. On the bright side, by requiring a series of "rollback" hearings if the higher tax values are retained, the law gives property owners multiple times to learn about their government's budgets.
For Columbia County, there will be three rollback hearings for the School Board budget, which this year totals $125 million. Likewise, county commissioners will hold three hearings to discuss their $41 million budget. All of the hearings will be in July.
The taxpayers who attend those hearings -- and again, more of them should -- will get details about where the money to run the government comes from, and where it's spent. For example, they'll learn that the School Board is handling the continued rise in student populations and federal and state mandates by dipping into local reserves. State budget "austerity" cuts have cost the county $4.2 million, and local taxpayers are footing the bill.
And on the County Commission side, the modest rise of less than 4 percent in spending is matched by an expected 6.5 percent increase in the property values. That's good, conservative budgeting. While it's uncomfortable to see taxes rise each year along with property values, it's better than the alternative. No one wants to see their tax bill fall if it's because their home is worth less. That's OK for used-cars buyers, but it's a frightening scenario for those whose biggest investment is their home.
We've looked at the numbers each year and are confident local officials are managing taxpayer money to the best of their abilities. Further, county employees like purchasing director Greg Woodlief are constantly seeking ways to save money with creative ideas such as reverse auctions for buying supplies.
Concerned taxpayers should take the time to stop in for at least one of the six rollback hearings if they'd like a dose of confidence with their tax bills, too.
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