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Government spending taking an ever-growing bite

To the Editor:

In 2007-2008, as the national news focused on the crisis in the national housing market, local bids for property in Beaufort County were withdrawn or sharply reduced, and the volume of home sales fell as the values of land and buildings throughout the county quietly collapsed. The lack of recorded property transfers throughout 2009-2010 resulted in a lag in the data available to county appraisers during the 2010 tax revaluation. Consequently, the revaluation was biased toward real estate prices that were recorded during the boom and inadequately reflected the reality of what were sharply reduced property values by 2010.

Because the revaluation was technically flawed, the tax rate in Beaufort County was set substantially higher than actual real estate values should have allowed, and quite a bit higher than ordinary spending needs would have required. The result was an over-collection of taxes each and every year between 2011 and 2014. The record shows that between 2008 and 2014, county government expenditures were roughly $49 million per year, while annual revenues collected rose from $49 million to $53 million annually, generating a $10 million increase in unspent reserves by June of 2015. In retrospect, county taxpayers were funding the creation of a financial cushion to pad the construction of a ridiculous and highly unpopular mega-jail in Chocowinity. The budget had become a cash cow for the whims of a political clique within the board itself.

By November 2014, a new board was elected, and the mega-jail was abandoned. As local taxpayers should have expected, once the need to build a war chest for the jail was off the table, the excess $10 million in reserves became fair game for a host of entirely new pet projects favored by a county board that never tires of squandering other people’s money.

Since 2015, annual spending has climbed to $60 million; the county commissioners have increased yearly taxes by $3 million, spent $8 million of the excess reserves, and borrowed $3 million from the county’s hospital trust fund to catch up on long neglected general maintenance and capital projects. Since the 2010 revaluation, property values have shrunk by 4 percent, the population of Beaufort County has fallen by several hundred, and the workforce has decreased by nearly 1,000 people. Over the same period, the county payroll has increased from 308 to 381 employees, the inventory of county-owned land and buildings has expanded, and tax rates and fees have risen as private property values have fallen. In 2010, 20,000 jobholders carried $32 million in local property and sales taxes. In 2019, 19,000 jobholders will carry $44 million in local property and sales taxes. The result is that while fewer people are working, and even fewer of those are working in the private sector, county government’s spending is taking an ever-growing bite out of the decreasing value of peoples’ homes and businesses.

Growth in county spending has arguably overtaken the local economy’s ability to keep pace without frequent tax hikes and the issuance of new debt. The county commissioners aren’t developing this county; they’re dismembering it.

 

Warren Smith

Beaufort County