Wyman’s Washington: On fees and taxes

Published 7:16 pm Friday, May 4, 2018

“What’s happening, Roland?”

I’ve sat on just a few city council meetings since being elected, and I’ll soon provide an update on this fascinating experience. But first, I should probably talk about changes you may have recently read about and provide a bit of explanation and background.

City council members are assigned to be liaison to at least two of our city’s advisory boards. These advisory boards deal with specific areas in which the city is involved. So, we have boards such as Historic Preservation, Parks and Recreation, Planning and so on. You can find the full list on the city’s web site at: www.washingtonnc.gov/advisory-boards.

I was delighted to be assigned to the library and the electric utility boards.

As liaisons, we attend advisory board meetings to learn about the various projects and issues they are working on, and then it’s our job to keep the full council informed.

In recent months, I learned much about the library’s operation and quite a lot about how these operations are funded. Of course, I’ve learned about our electric utility also, but we’ll cover that later.

Funding our library has, at times, required difficult choices, and this year is no exception. What is different, though, is our recent plan to implement fees for those who don’t live within our city.

It’s human nature to view any change with a critical eye, and changes are often not welcome.

In this case, I think that once I explain how these changes came about and why they are the best course of action, most folks will understand.

Fees or Taxes?

First, I’ll assume you all agree that our library is an important service and that it should not be discontinued. After all, libraries are no longer just dusty old rooms full of books. They are a place where people can use computers, access resources for job searches, download e-books and audio books and bring their children to attend programs that both entertain and sharpen their appetites for learning.

Now, assuming we all agree on that point, then the funds to operate our library are necessary, and the only question is where the money comes from.

Washington operates our library (Brown Library). Both city residents and those living outside our city (Beaufort County) use it. If you live inside the city, part of your taxes pay for the library. Until recently, if you lived outside the city, you could also use the library free of charge.

I think we all agree that if both city and county residents use the library, we should not expect only the city taxpayers to support it.

In recent weeks, I’ve had a series of informal conversations with folks at county government to discuss the best ways to have county residents support their share of library costs. The idea was to avoid misunderstandings and hopefully agree on what would work best and be fair going forward.

The folks I talked with agree that the library should be partly funded by people who live outside the city, and they, like me, think it is better for county residents to pay a small fee. The alternative would be to make one payment from the county budget, which means the cost is carried by all county residents whether they use the library or not.

For optional services such as a library, fees are a much fairer approach than forcing all taxpayers to support the service. This applies not only to a library, but to other services such recreation activities and facilities, renting city facilities, swimming pools, and so on. Not everyone uses them, so it’s better to ask some who use these services to pay something to help offset the costs.

What’s important here is that no one at the city nor the county intended to penalize county taxpayers.

Quite the opposite. Think of it this way; would you be happy to learn that your cable provider included all the premium movie channels, all the expensive sports packages and whatever other extras they had available and didn’t give you a choice, even if you never use those channels? You’d surely think, “I never watch those expensive sports packages. Why am I paying for all those who do?” You’d quickly realize your cable bill could be lower if you weren’t forced to pay for something you don’t use. Well there are folks who don’t get to the library or participate in various sports leagues. Why should they pay?

Fees aren’t the best solution for everything. They wouldn’t work for streets, or public safety for instance.

But I do believe you folks will understand when city and county try their best to find the fairest approach to handling your money!

“What a Country!”

That’s what I heard myself thinking a few weeks ago.

Not long after I began my term in city council, I went to “boot camp.” Yes, anyone elected to city council attends a training course given by the North Carolina School of Government, and for good reason. I’ll have my thoughts on my boot camp experience and the process of settling in as a new council member next.

Roland Wyman is Washington councilman. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Wyman and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other entity or organization or government body.