One of the fundamental principles of governmental budgets is that politicians will gladly take as much tax money as the citizens will allow, and spend as much as they can get away with.
Citizens make this somewhat easier when they demand both low taxes and abundant services, allowing politicians to exploit the ensuing confusion - or just confusing the politicians, who, being politicians, try to be all things to all people.
This works fine and dandy when times are good, coffers flush and businesses and citizens are doing well. But when times get tough and belts get tight, that's when the job gets a little tougher.
That's precisely what Columbia County officials are now facing. After years of booming growth and rising tax revenues, the county - like most of the nation - is facing near-flat growth even as the county's population and demand for services continue to rise.
In the midst of this economic slowdown, Georgia's governor last week signed a bill freezing tax assessments for the next two years. That will place further limits on county tax revenues unless officials decide to raise tax rates - which would be political suicide.
Columbia County officials, keenly aware of the need to keep their political necks out of the noose, are responding with budget proposals for next year that are much tighter than we've become accustomed to.
But it also means that citizens must be prepared for services that are, to put a positive spin on it, more efficient.
Here's an example: The school board is expected to continue the practice begun this year of cutting back on substitute teachers by instead using paraprofessionals to fill in for short-term teacher absences.
In better times this is not an appealing idea. Substitutes are often certified teachers themselves, with credentials equal to or even exceeding those of the teachers whose spot they temporarily fill. Parapros typically have more limited education and lack certification. When they are used to fill a teaching role, it also means another classroom has been deprived of its parapro.
But as undesirable as it might be, it is a creative and fiscally sound use of tax dollars at a time when there are fewer of them to go around.
The economy already is showing signs of recovery, though in Columbia County the dip has never been as bad as much of the rest of the nation. When things improve, it will be useful if local government officials can take lessons from this forced frugality and use it to ease the tax burden from local citizens in better times.
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