Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Augusta public hearing tonight ... do we need to raise taxes?

A public hearing will be held at 7:00 tonight by the Augusta County Board of Supervisors as they consider the idea of raising taxes to balance the budget.

A financial tsumani is hitting Virginia's cities and counties and, since many citizens are also attempting to make ends meet in their personal lives, all sides are dealing with the question of how to handle this issue that has faced multiple localities in the Commonwealth.

As local elected officials struggle with budget shortfalls in these financially turbulent times, one has to wonder how many citizens, angry at the though of raising local taxes, have talked with their state representatives about the unfunded mandates that are breaking the backs of localities throughout Virginia?

In the SWAC area that would be Sen. Emmett Hanger, Sen. Mark Obenshain, Del. Steve Landes, Del. Ben Cline, Del. Dickie Bell, and Del. Tony Wilt (see their contact info below).

Augusta supervisors voted 5-2 to hold the public hearing on a proposal to add a 3-cent increase to the real estate tax and a 32-cent hike on the personal property tax rate for vehicles. Supervisors David Beyeler, Jeff Moore, Larry Wills, Mike Shull, and David Karaffa voted to consider the idea while Tracy Pyles and Marshall Pattie voiced their preference to use money from the county's capital account -- savings -- a reasonable alternate plan but since it involved recurring costs, other supervisors were concerned about dipping into those savings.

The proposal to raise taxes is driven by needs that include more firefighters, sheriff's deputies, and school costs -- the core services that are the responsibility of local governments.

The three SWAC localities -- Staunton, Waynesboro, and Augusta County -- continue to wrestle with budget shortfalls even after years of spending cuts. Public schools and local governments have been in the headlines for months, laying off employees, making additional cuts, putting off building repairs, and searching for even more ways to save. Local school teachers have gone four years without pay raises, and school buildings have put needed basic repairs and technology updates on hold.

The Augusta County School Board voted in December to close an elementary school, and has threatened to close two others. The superintendent even floated the idea of closing Shenandoah Valley Governor's School because of budget cuts, news that brought out hundreds of teachers, parents, and students in protest at a supervisor meeting and resulted in that idea being back-burnered. In the process, however, a group called Support Our Schools (SOS) was born and an online petition garnered over 1,000 signatures in a the first few days and SOS yard signs popped up all over the county.

Unfunded mandates from state representatives have had deep repercussions at the local level including state legislators' voting to pass along Virginia Retirement System costs, as noted by the News Advance:
One of the biggest burdens Richmond has foisted on local government entities ­— city councils, boards of supervisors and school boards — is the recapitalization of the Virginia Retirement System. And it’s close to becoming the straw that breaks the backs of local governments and local taxpayers. [emphasis added]
More than twenty localities throughout the Commonwealth have either proposed or already enacted tax increases to meet the demands of running their communities, including Bath, Rockingham, Fluvanna, Harrisonburg, Winchester, Lynchburg, Hampton, Fredericksburg, Lexington, Petersburg, Williamsburg, Bristol, Shenandoah, Orange, Staunton, Accomack, Gloucester, Poquoson, York, Washington, and Albemarle.

As a low-tax person who believes in cutting costs to make ends meet, what has caught my attention in the local struggle is listening to those who are just as fiscally conservative -- elected folks who feel the pain of their constituents when they have to raise taxes. They have engaged in thoughtful discussions to find solutions but have often been met with an unmovable wall of discontent from those who have declared "no new taxes," no matter what the circumstances.

Are people listening when local leaders say they have cut as much as they can? Rockingham County supervisors held a public hearing last week about the necessity of raising taxes. Only one person spoke up against a tax increase; the others understood the need to fund core services such as fire and emergency, schools, and infrastructure. Fluvanna County supervisors under Chairman Shaun Kenney, a strong financial conservative, also held a public hearing last week about the necessity of raising taxes. The anti-tax people turned out to protest.

Tonight's public hearing may come down to a clash of retired citizens on fixed incomes versus younger members of the community who are holding down jobs and raising children.

So what is the answer? The bills are due. The budget has been studied, cuts have been made, and still there's a deficit. Should local elected leaders ignore their responsibility and kick the can down the road for the next group of supervisors and council members?

If you're going:
What: Augusta County public hearing on proposed tax increases
When: Tonight, April 18, 2012
Time: 7:00
Place: Augusta County Government Center, Verona

Contact info for local state representatives to ask that they stop passing along unfunded mandates to localities:

Delegate Dickie Bell
(540) 332-3998

Delegate Steve Landes
(540) 245-5540

Delegate Tony Wilt
(540) 437-1450

Delegate Todd Gilbert
(540) 459-7550

Delegate Ben Cline
(434) 946-9908

Senator Mark Obenshain
(540) 437-1451

Senator Emmett Hanger, Jr.
(540) 885-6898

Cross-posted at Bearing Drift

No comments: