Wacko taxes

Penurious by necessity, I have never had a latte. Yet soon I may be dunned the equivalent of two lattes a week. First the library expansion and the proposed quarter-cent county tax hike on the November ballot to go toward education and business development, and now an additional half-cent tax increase waiting in the wings to go toward our 25-year transit plan.

While I firmly believe that we could avoid a tax increase if our county commissioners were better stewards of our money, I can’t quibble with the investment in our future by spending on education, encouraging commercial development and increasing public transportation options. But I’m far from quibble-free.

At last Wednesday’s Town Council meeting, council members had the option of voting to support the transit plan with or without pushing for the additional half-cent tax increase to be on the ballot in November. Because county commissioners are elected in even-numbered years, the only reason to go to the polls this year would be to vote for or against the tax increase. Citizen Will Raymond spoke out against rushing the half-cent increase, and Matt Czajkowski and Gene Pease agreed.

Raymond used the word “disenfranchised” in referring to voters in rural northern Orange County, and that struck a nerve with Mark Kleinschmidt. Our usually politically correct mayor railed that if voters really don’t want the tax increase, they will go to the polls and vote it down, and that the presence of some “wacko Tea Party candidate” on the ballot shouldn’t make any difference as to whether people go out to vote.

Kleinschmidt, given his work fighting death penalty cases, should have a better understanding of the disenfranchised in our society. Psychologists define “locus of control” as the belief each of us has about the extent to which we can make a difference in the way our life plays out. Go to the courthouse in Durham and watch who repeatedly pushes the button while waiting for the elevator (as if that will make it arrive faster). Generally, lawyers and people used to dressing professionally every day display that internal locus of control behavior. Those who look down-and-out often have an external locus of control; they believe they are unable to influence the people, events and things that affect their lives. High wealth correlates to internal locus of control; low wealth to external locus of control.

Demographics show that people in rural areas have less money than people in urban areas. Thus, there are likely to be more people in northern Orange County who, on the first Tuesday in November, will consider the cost of gas to drive the long distance to the polls and the anxiety of asking to come into work late or leave early to vote and think, “Why bother? The tax increase will pass anyway.”

The council – including Kleinschmidt – voted 7-1 for the option that did not include rushing the tax increase to the November ballot. Jim Ward was the only one to vote no, stating that he wants the tax increase at the earliest occasion.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Runner

     /  June 1, 2011

    Let’s look at this matter in a purely selfish way.

    The County Commisioners are saying that the increased sales tax rate would help them stave off a property tax increase. However, when you couple the concensus understanding that sales taxes are a regressive form of taxation (hitting the less well off amoung us hardest), with the oppotunity to save on property taxes (hitting the more better off homeowners hardest), you a very “non-progressive” result.

    So, if the “proggressive” voters of Chapel Hill and Orange County want the poor to pay to keep my taxes down on my big ol’ house, have at it.

    For those without a sense of humor, I’m merely pointing out the inverted logic of this proposed sales tax increase.

  2. WJ

     /  June 1, 2011

    …the presence of some “wacko Tea Party candidate” the ballot shouldn’t make any difference as to whether people go out to vote.

    To say something like that really shows that our mayor is simply a pompous jerk. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

  3. Scott Maitland

     /  June 1, 2011

    The word “disenfranchised” is defined as “deprived of power.” But now we are going to redefine it as people that FEEL like they are deprived of power? Really?

  4. Brandon Rector

     /  June 1, 2011

    I’m confused by the latte reference.

    2 X latte = $6
    $6/.0075 = $800
    You spend $800 a week in Orange County?

  5. Terri Buckner

     /  June 1, 2011

    Assuming lattes are $3 a piece, Nancy is saying that the 2 tax initiatives, should they pass, and the library will cost her around $312 a year, or the equivalent of 2 lattes a week. $6 x 52.

  6. Fred Black

     /  June 1, 2011

    Don’t forget that the GA plans to end the 1 cent temporary tax so you could be a quarter cent to the good. How did you price the library expansion?

  7. Mark Marcoplos

     /  June 1, 2011

    Let’s step back a second.

    The 1/4% tax increase was voted down in an election that drew urban & rural citizens to the polls. To rephrase that, in the fairest of county elections the tax increase was voted down.

    For the current BOCC to put it back on the ballott – knowing that the rural turnout will be far less – is a kick in the shins to the citziens of Orange County who believe in democracy.

    This is a a sleazy ploy by the BOCC/County Mgr. – we are allowed to wonder who is steering policy.

  8. Nancy Oates

     /  June 1, 2011

    Fred — my reference to the library expansion costing me a latte comes from a supporter of the library expansion who, during the public comment phase, blithely said that the expansion would cost taxpayers the equivalent of a weekly latte. That stuck in my mind, because it seemed so egocentric, as if he had no conception of all the residents of Chapel Hill whose way of life does not include such luxuries as lattes. I can’t vouch for the validity of his calculations.

    As for the purported 1-cent reduction in sales tax, I’ll believe it when I see it. Gov. Perdue may be quite sincere in pushing for it to happen, but I don’t think she’s going to succeed in that one. She’d have to make too many objectionable cuts in spending.

  9. Fred Black

     /  June 2, 2011

    Incorrect; the Gov is not in support of the 1 cent reduction, the Republican GA is. The facts on the expansion are not in but it seems fcts are not important when you want to make your points.

  10. As much as I’d like to understand the local political process and all of that, I don’t. When I vote, I always vote “no” on a tax increase, unless I’ve really taken the time to understand what specifically the tax increase is for.
    I think part of the problem with taxes being an income, is that voting on a tax increase will “solve” the issue, instead of forcing the city/county to get more creative in solving money issues. OR just going without, which is usually what happens when I have budget issues at home. I don’t get to just opt to spend more money, I have to figure out where I can spend less. It seems logical to me that the city/county governments should do the same- unless there’s just something I’m missing? I don’t know.

  11. Interesting discussion so far. A few comments.

    First, I believe that holding a referendum with county-wide impact during a municipal election year is tantamount to a structural disenfranchisement. Gaming the system like this is equivalent to implementing impediments like the Voter ID Act and others of its ilk to gain a political advantage at the cost of small-d democracy.

    Voters in the municipal areas can rest easy because it is nearly impossible for rural voters to force a referendum in a similar fashion. I’m sure, though, that if the shoe was on the other foot, that an issue municipal voters had already shown a distaste for was thrust upon them again – as the 1/4 cent tax has been this year on the rural voters – we would see the same folks who have welcomed the sales tax initiative howl in complaint.

    So, to be simple about it, I stood against putting the 1/4 cent tax and 1/2 cent tax increases on this year’s ballot as a matter of principle.

    I asked Council last week not to compound the BOCC’s poor decision on the 1/4 cent sales tax by endorsing a further affront to open governance.

    Second, the BOCC already acknowledged that last year’s lopsided “education” campaign was more akin to a sales pitch – sprinkled with old goodies like fear for the children – than an objective presentation of the pluses and minuses of the referendum. They have already pledged to do better this round (Steve Yuhasz responded positively to my suggestion of asking a wide spectrum of interested parties to review the county’s materials and weigh the bias before rolling them out to the public). Still, I think we will see a concentrated attempt to drum up votes in the municipal areas over a broad based plan to draw in the whole of this community.

    The ends don’t justify the means as much as one desires those ends – putting ones thumb on the scales to tilt the result will bring no good in the long run.

    Third, speaking of community, Chapel Hill and Carrboro, as much as it seems to pain some of our elected folks, are part of Orange County. Over the last decade I have worked alongside many folks who live in the county proper who also work hard to make our municipalities successful communities. In the last few years it seems that a historical divide between neighbors has widened at an ever increasing rate. What started as irritation has blossomed, to some extent, to resentment and outright disrespect.

    Whether it is a certain kind of passivity in dealing with long-standing issues like the landfill or aggressive demands for non-existent funds for non-core services, the municipalities haven’t endeared themselves of our rural neighbors of late. Endorsing this referendum was a surefire way to exacerbate those negative perceptions and further drive a wedge between folks within the larger community.

    Sure, the municipalities provide a good deal of the county’s tax revenue. But the strength of this community depends on more than cash. When the towns look to preserve the rural buffer by strengthening the County’s UDO or search for alternatives to dealing with our garbage or depend on folks living within our rural watersheds to shepherd their health we are trading upon a sense of greater community. We rely on the goodwill of our neighbors near and far.

    The way the BOCC thrust the 1/4 cent sales referendum into the mix has not helped strengthen our community’s common bonds.

    Fourth, I don’t think the taxes we are being asked to vote on are being deployed to their best use.

    Chapel Hill announced this week it will probably cut funding to a program that supports the reintroduction of juvenile parolees into our community. This is just another in a line of county and municipal cutbacks in human services – services we need more than ever during these troubled times. As popular as our schools are (and as unpopular as certain populations in need seem to be) it is time to put our resources where they will reduce a better share of human misery.

    The BOCC elected not to emphasize saving or restoring these programs which is why I will not be supporting a 1/4 cent tax even if held under more appropriate electoral conditions.

    As far as the 1/2 cent sales tax, as much as I like the idea of light rail, I think the more pragmatic approach is to build up a robust comprehensive regional bus service which promises a lower cost of entry and greater flexibility in adapting to changing conditions. Beyond that, the nebulous promise of light rail has already distorted our land use policies in an unhealthy and unsustainable fashion. I don’t see our local leaders working to change that troubling trend.

    I really like the work that our transit folks have done the last 6 weeks on bolstering our long-term plans for bus services. Unfortunately, their plans will not be sufficiently mature by November for a cautious voter, like me,one who wants to understand if the tax monies collected will really find their way into practical approaches for solving our traffic mess, to make an informed decision.

    I’d even be willing to endorse a strong and more mature plan, one that de-emphasizes the near fantasy of light rail, under the right economic and electoral conditions. Unfortunately, that will not be the case this year.

    Finally, the economy sucks and shows no sign of improving near term. Folks have ripped through their seed corn trying to stave off financial ruin. Yes, a 1/4 cent tax or a 1/2 cent tax or a combined 3/4 cent tax, even on top of our existing sales tax rate, probably won’t break many folks banks. Still, for some businesses and some families, it will be a bridge too far. The short shrift given those folks concerns by some of those promoting the increases has only decreased my confidence in their plans for these new revenues.

    Will the GOP get their way and lift 1 cent of the sales tax rate? Possibly. For a short while. My suspicion is that the extreme GOP freshmen will soon be shown the door and the State GOP will quite likely see a repudiation of their platform lasting a few election cycles.

    The State is groaning both under a debt burden recklessly increased during a recent period of unsound optimism in a faux economic recovery (sound familiar to anyone?) and a raft of critical core service obligations.

    The revenue that isn’t collected via that 1 cent sales tax will be collected elsewhere – at the municipal, county or state level – to fund both those outstanding needs. And when the Dems retake the legislature, I expect that they will struggle to mend the huge holes that freshmen GOP class is carving into the fabric of our social contract. How? Increasing revenues.

    Continuing to support the pretense that a short term reduction of the 1 cent sales tax will mean that an increase of 3/4 cent carries no bite undercuts the reliability of other prognostications made by local leaders.

    So, executive summary, I primarily asked the Council not to reinforce the BOCC’s bad decision to game the referendum system to get their way (ends and means) and to reaffirm our community’s support for small-d democracy on principle.

    The revenues the proposed taxes will raise could do real good if targeted appropriately – I don’t think they are.

    It’s a cruddy time to levy more financial burdens on some in our community, especially if those new revenues don’t end up leavening some of the grief the new burden carries.

    I apologize for the long response and will go back to terse mode for the next month as an act of contrition.

  12. Terri Buckner

     /  June 5, 2011

    How many human services can a 1/4 cent sales tax buy? It’s my understanding that the BOCC targeted those revenues for school facility maintenance and economic development. Using it for economic development will generate additional revenues so why do you (Will) thinks that’s a bad use? School facility maintenance is critical and has been postponed way too long. We have buildings that are rife with mold, creating health concerns. We have buildings that need energy efficiency measures, like low flow plumbing, double glazed windows, etc.

    I understand your concern with the continued cutbacks in human services Will. But I don’t think this sales tax (should it pass) will generate sufficient revenue to meet much of the need. Whereas directing it toward the two specified purposes creates additional revenues and (if properly directed) reduces utility expenses and the inevitable higher cost maintenance down the road.

  13. Ideally it would be a 2/3rd split with $850,000 going to economic development – enough to support concrete projects on the board – and $1,500,000 to fill in the human service gaps. Even at 1/2, or roughly $1.2 million, the dollars would have higher impact by far than on the identified school upgrades (one of which was repaving a running track). What could the funds be used for? Restoring the level of pre-natal services at community health, keep the dentalcare program in Carrboro, restore access to parolee outreach and management and on and on. Look at the kind of cuts at both the county and municipal levels: $76k for juvenille recividism work, $60k for housing dental/parolle/mental health services,$70k for pre-natal,etc. Look at the kinds of grants to local NGO’s that have been cut or reduced – many in the under $10k range – dollars that typically go further for structuralreasons (volunteer labor, in-kind matching funds,etc.).

    What is a pittance to the school budgets – $650,000 toeach district if split equitably – could go a long way inhelping the growing % of Orange County residents ( 1/5th in poverty according to the census) who partially or wholly rely on the safety net. It’s a matter of priorities – passing the sales tax now for the purposes outlined will delay the day we finally deal with this growing problem.

  14. Next comments will be twittersize ;-)!

  15. Terri Buckner

     /  June 5, 2011

    Having spent several years in facilities services for the university, I’ve seen the costs of delayed maintenance. They become exponential if not dealt with in a timely fashion. Mold is a huge problem and the source of many health problems. I’d really like to see the county/towns include maintenance costs in every new government building budget. That would get at the true cost of new school construction.

    There are a lot of hard choices to be made, many of which are pay now or pay later through the nose.