Columbia County will never have as much money as county officials would like to have. With more than 100,000 citizens, there are always hundreds of thousands of things to spend tax money on.
But as commissioners settle into study of next year's budget, it doesn't hurt to remind them to maintain fiscal restraint as they spend those taxpayers' dollars -- and to look for more sources of revenue than just those taxpayers' pockets.
Why the caution? After all, commissioners have been pretty restrained in the past. While the county's budget has grown, it has been at a slightly lower rate than the county's population growth. That's good.
However, there are some big dollar signs on the horizon. In addition to hefty spending requests coming in from some county departments for next year, there also is a proposal afoot to float a big loan that would kick county spending into overdrive.
The latter suggestion comes from County Commission Chairman Ron Cross, who says the county has such a backlog of basic needs that standard sources of revenue can't keep up. He's called upon the county's staff to study the idea of a $100 million bond to bring in a huge infusion of borrowed cash.
The good news is that such a proposal would have to go before voters. That means county officials would have to lay out a convincing case for what Cross says could be construed as "mortgaging the county's future." Voters would have to give their consent for raising their own taxes.
In a community growing as fast as Columbia County, the pay-as-you-go method virtually never works. Borrowing money would allow the county to get caught up on basic infrastructure needs, and reduce such priority shifts as the recent delay of the Flowing Wells Road project in favor of the William Few Parkway extension. It also would allow construction to proceed in today's dollars, financed with the county's very favorable interest rates.
So far, so good. But there's one factor missing: Part of the reason for what county officials maintain are long-neglected needs are an inability to keep up with the speed of new development. Does it make sense to put all the burden for catching up with those needs on the backs of taxpayers who already are here?
As part of any plan to bring in more revenue, the county should once and for all study the viability of impact fees on new development. We've heard the arguments: The state law is confusing, and the use of impact fees is tightly restricted. But those are just excuses for not studying the revenue source.
Before asking taxpayers to dig deeper to keep up with the county's growth, the county's elected officials must be ready to explain how they've made sure those profiting most heavily from that growth are helping to pay their share of the burden, too.
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