Monopoly money to fritter away

Published 6:18 pm Friday, March 4, 2016

The punch line for a long, costly joke has finally been written. Beaufort County’s partner in the Washington Industrial Park wants to liquidate its mistake at cost. After sitting on a dead investment for 15 years, the City of Washington wisely wants to call it quits.

“I don’t want any cheese, just let me out of the trap.”

The property at both of the industrial parks is basically unsellable. The Quick Start II building cost $2.75 million in 2008 and remained vacant until 2013 when it was liquidated for $1.05 million. The Skills Center is a $2 million multi-purpose building still struggling to find any purpose at all for its 10 years of existence. The Washington Industrial Park hasn’t been able to attract a single business from outside of Beaufort County. None. The vacant Chocowinity Industrial Park has even less to be said for it.

In March 2003, the executive director of the Economic Development Commission, an entourage of crony favorites and political groupies, announced that he had “researched the issue and discovered that 86 percent of industrial prospects are attracted to a place because a building is available, and 14 percent of industrial prospects are attracted to a place because a building site is available.”

The details of this “research” have never been produced and no one on the county board or staff can remember ever having actually seen the research in question. It seems that nothing more than a half-baked personal opinion set in motion a loss to taxpayers of over $10 million.

In 2003, Beaufort County was beginning to feel the benefits of a boom in real estate values and an increase in residential and commercial construction. Tax receipts swelled. The county commissioners had money to burn and they burned it all. By 2009, the budget was in deficit and the county’s fund balance was reduced to its bare minimum.

The 2010 property revaluation allowed commissioners to shift the weight of their poor decisions onto the taxpayers. Valuations were set using metrics that failed to reflect the full collapse in the values of homes and commercial properties. During the heart of the real estate and employment collapse, i.e., 2009–2011, the taxes collected from local property owners increased 20 percent. Due to this rise and the strengthening sales tax receipts, the excess balances in Beaufort County government’s various funds accounts are now nearly $18 million.

It won’t be long before this money simply drains through the fingers of the county board as their attention skips from one ill-conceived vanity project to the next.

Our community’s prosperity is measured by the private wealth and productivity of the individuals who live here. The community’s economy is diminished when that wealth and productivity is taxed away to accommodate the whims of local politicians. Rather than having the useful things we would individually have chosen to purchase in helping our families and improving our lives, we have instead been stuck paying for industrial parks and providing politicians with monopoly money to flitter away.

Warren Smith is a resident of Beaufort County.