My turn: The binge and purge nature of county spending
Published 1:37 pm Friday, April 1, 2016
The 2017 budget for Beaufort County will be presented at a public meeting next month. It will indicate whether the increase in the rate of spending, which began two years ago and accelerated last year, is being contained. The new budget will represent our last chance at restraining county spending before the start of the property revaluation in 2017, which leads to the final decision on where the ad valorem tax rate will be set in 2018.
The current situation is reminiscent of the period from 2005 through 2010, when property taxes during the housing boom led to surpluses, which were thrown away on the economic development fiasco.
Money dumped into county industrial parks and numerous other failures had managed to drive county budgets into the red by 2008. With the county’s general fund being rapidly depleted, our commissioners spared themselves any embarrassment from their mismanagement of county finances by seizing the opportunity to increase taxes on homes and businesses in the 2010 revaluation. Between 2009 and 2011 local residents suffered through a 40-percent collapse in home values, but property taxes collected by the county rose more than 20 percent.
From 2010 through 2013, commissioners held county spending close to the $52 million level reached just before the 2009 crisis. But, by 2014, the board was spending an additional $2 million on feasibility studies for a jail that was opposed by 67 percent of the voters and was so unpopular that even the federal government refused it any financing. To foster an illusion of the jail’s affordability, commissioners had trimmed the overall budget by neglecting or deferring spending for maintenance of buildings and equipment. However, this rouse was abandoned in 2016 and, with the jail no longer an issue, spending jumped to $57.5 million. If next month’s budget grows beyond this level, then we will face tax hikes in 2018 to meet the steepening climb in county spending.
Currently, county budgeting allows our commissioners to use a tactic of postponing expenditures on necessary property maintenance in order to build a cash horde from which they lavish spending on an ever-changing array of harebrained pet projects: industrial parks, ethanol schemes, hospital renovation, jails, VOA, crony grants, etc. This creates fluctuating periods of excess available funds, followed by periods of frantic spending and ridiculous blunders, then deficits and finally increased taxes to catch up on overlooked necessities.
The best way to break this cycle would be to elect competent county commissioners.
Despairing of such good fortune, the next best expedient would be to restrain the binge and purge nature of county spending by establishing a “facilities budget:” a prescheduling and prefunding of mandatory maintenance projects, based on a professional engineer’s survey of all property, equipment and vehicles owned by Beaufort County. By eliminating the arbitrary approach used by commissioners in delaying necessary maintenance efforts, the county’s taxpayers would be less vulnerable to the manipulated budgets that commissioners have traditionally used to disguise and excuse the damage done by their errors in judgment.