As one fiscal year ends and another begins, it's time for an annual ritual of local governments:
The rollback hearing.
Few people understand them. Fewer still attend them. Yet the hearings are held each year, a state-required choreography of self-flagellation for local governments guilty of nothing more sinister than presiding over communities whose property is worth more than it was the year before.
As property values rise in fast-growing counties such as Columbia, state law requires those communities to either cut their tax rate by the amount of the increased property value, or declare a "Notice of Tax Increase" in their local paper.
Why do those values rise? Well, because the property is worth more. Land is in finite supply, and in areas where more people want to live, demand means property value increases. The alternative is a drop in the value of a homeowner's biggest investment.
"We want people's property to increase in value," says Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross, who also notes that the "penalty" is that taxes based on that value also increase.
Columbia County commissioners would have had to cut the tax millage rate by 7.29 percent to match the rising value of land in the county. Even with a tight budgeting process that drew scattered squeals of protest from some county departments, commissioners didn't squeeze out the hundreds of thousands more dollars such a cut would require.
So those commissioners, just like their counterparts on the school board and in the Harlem and Grovetown city governments, instead are declaring tax increases and holding state-required hearings to explain them.
Actually, while the county's budget gets the most attention - and most taxpayer criticism - the school board budget consumes more than double the tax dollars of the county and the two cities combined. And the school board, to meet its own ever-growing demands, is dipping into its reserve fund in addition to keeping all of the additional revenue brought in by higher property values.
"Austerity" cuts in state funding have cost Columbia County more than $13.5 million in the past four years, says school system comptroller Pat Sullivan. "Basically, the local taxpayers are picking up the shortfall from the state," she told board members at Tuesday morning's hearing.
Are there line-items in the budgets where local governments can cut enough to keep taxes level for all taxpayers? Possibly - but only at a drastic cost in services also demanded by citizens in the fast-growing community. Tweaking around the edges won't do it.
Want more details? The two cities hold additional "rollback" hearings Monday; the county will hold two hearings on Tuesday, and the school board also holds its final hearing Tuesday.
Along with death, taxes are a certainty of life. When their rise is tied to an increase in property value, and with it a good return on a homeowner's biggest investment, it's unfair to blame elected officials for giving citizens what they want - and charging them for it.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.