Candidates differ on a tax question

Published 10:57 am Friday, April 16, 2010

Staff Writer

An audience member submitted the question that brought the widest variety of responses from Beaufort County commissioner candidates in a forum held Tuesday night.
The responses were heard during the Washington Daily News Candidates Forum.
The question was drawn at random from a bowl by moderator Kellie Harris Hopkins, Beaufort County’s elections director.
The anonymous audience member who submitted the question wanted to know whether any of the candidates onstage would commit to a net-zero increase in property taxes over the next two years.
Catherine Keech, representing her husband, Republican Tony “T.J.” Keech Jr., joked that her spouse had advised her that “a good politician never commits to anything.”
“I do not believe that my husband would make that promise,” she said, bringing laughter from the audience.
(The humor was derived from her earlier remarks about the difficulty of the questions posed during the forum.)
She added that Keech “does believe in keeping taxes as low as possible.”
Republican Cindy Baldwin said “the state is in a deficit now.”
“We’re going to be stuck with a major deficit situation here in Beaufort County next year or later this year,” Baldwin said. “So the question is, ‘Are you willing to sacrifice?’ So, I will commit: I will not raise your taxes. But, in order to do that, some of the services gotta go. Just don’t complain when I don’t raise your taxes because something’s gotta go.”
She said holding down taxes allows businesses to flourish and the economy to grow.
Referring to the recent revaluation of all real property in the county, incumbent Republican Stan Deatherage described Beaufort County as a “revenue-neutral” entity.
“We will not raise taxes this year or next year,” Deatherage asserted. “Some people will probably pay more because their (tax) assessment went up. Conversely, some people are going to pay less because their assessment went down. To be sure, we’re going to drop the tax rate this year.”
He said he has never voted for a tax increase.
“I have worked with my fellow commissioners to try to reduce taxes, which means cutting things,” he commented.
Echoing Baldwin, Deatherage emphasized his belief that lower taxes aid in business growth.
“Do what you can to plan for a better tomorrow, but don’t raise the cost of government,” he said.
Incumbent Democrat Ed Booth said he “would not dare to stand here and promise” to refrain from voting to raise taxes.
“None of us know what tomorrow’s going to be,” Booth said. “Some tragedy, some hardship, or some schools catching fire — things like that. You’re going to box yourself in (by saying), ‘I will not raise taxes, regardless.’”
He referred to Republican President George Herbert Walker Bush’s “no-new-taxes” pledge.
“That’s like read my lips. Remember that? Read my lips? That’s what happens,” he said. “People that are in Beaufort County deserve the best we can give them with the funds that we have. I heard my colleague (Deatherage) say he’s always fighting to cut, fighting to cut. But he never tells you about the things he adds to the budget.”
Unaffiliated hopeful Bertie Arnhols started by answering the question with a question: “Regarding lowering your taxes: If I stood up here and told you that that wasn’t going to happen, would any of you believe it? I don’t think so.”
She said she wouldn’t tell the audience what she would do as a commissioner “because I don’t know what I would do. I can only tell you this, I’ll base it on what has been because you can tell what that is.”
She said the county cut three positions in the sheriff’s office, adding that crime went up from 2006 to 2008.
“If you want people to come here and live, and people who are going to pay taxes and bring money into this county, you have got to support certain things, certain infrastructure,” she said. “That takes money. I’d just like to have more say in what they do with it.”
Democrat Sonya Shamseldin said she also would not commit to a net-zero tax increase, “only because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“We live here in this county, and we expect basic services,” Shamseldin said. “We expect law enforcement, we expect schools.”
She added that “it doesn’t mean that as a county commissioner you can’t look at it and give you that basic service. Now, do we have to have 50 patrol cars? No. I live within my means, and that’s the way that I’m gonna be as far as a commissioner and looking at that budget. … If we don’t have the money, we don’t get it.”
She said the county needs to set aside more money for its rainy-day fund.
“We really need to look and plan for the future,” Shamseldin concluded.
Democrat Jerry Evans said he is committed to revenue neutrality.
“However, remember we are a Tier 1 (economically depressed) county,” Evans said. “We need to grow. Remember the basic services we’re serving right now. We need to look at all of them. I’m sure we can move some of this money around. … We’re losing people. We’ve got to get this county growing.”
He called for increasing the tax base.
“One way can do it is to get some more people moving here,” Evans added. “I just think we’re in a desperate situation. So, I cannot promise that we won’t go up some, but again I am committed to revenue neutrality.”
Democrat Darwin Woolard said that he, too, could not dedicate himself to a net-zero increase.
“I can’t commit to that because I don’t know what’s in the budget,” Woolard declared. “I don’t know what we need to do. I don’t know what may come up in the upcoming years. You just don’t know. So, you have to take the facts, as I said earlier, work within the facts that’s in the budget that you have so that you know whether you have to have an increase or not increase. I do not want to raise taxes. I do not want to, but there again I don’t have a crystal ball in front of me.”
Incumbent Republican Al Klemm said: “I’m not going to lie to you. Every incumbent county commissioner voted for a tax increase. We all sat there, we voted for an increase in the rescue tax for certain rescue departments in the county. We also increased the water rates in several areas to make sure they were adequately funded. We had to do that.”
Klemm added that the state has taken away some local funds, and that the “federal government has flat run the country in the ground.”
He said sales-tax revenues are off by 13 percent in the county and 14 percent statewide.
“We’re not collecting as much money as we have,” he said.
According to Klemm, the county addressed revenue losses by reducing its employment rolls by 5 percent.
“We cut real people, and our budget was less this year than the previous year,” he noted.
He said the county needs jobs.
Republican Buddy Harrell pledged to oppose a tax increase.
“If you don’t have the money, you can’t spend it,” Harrell said. “Why commit to something you don’t have? We can cut some more of the waste if we have it.”
He mentioned having seen brick, former school buildings “boarded up to keep from breaking out the window lights, and yet they build new schools. Somehow the educators got the idea if you don’t have white marble halls and ceramic tile bathrooms, the students can’t learn.”
Harrell said the county is $20 million in debt because of new school buildings.
“More,” Deatherage interjected.
“And the education is no better than it was 10 years ago,” Harrell said, drawing that portion of the forum to a close.