Now how much?

You know that music in some movies that, no matter how pleasant the scene, you get an anxious feeling the pit of your stomach? Like in Jaws, vacationers may be frolicking in the gentle waves on a sunny day, but when you hear that music, you know: No good can come of this.

I heard that music while filling out the Parks & Rec preference survey. Question 14 asked me to indicate my level of comfort for funding sources for park areas or facilities needing improvement, and the first funding source on the list was “User Fees.” There was a tightening in my gut that got stronger as I got to third on the list, the “temporarily increased taxes” of a bond referendum.

As a member of the ever-shrinking demographic not wealthy enough to take advantage of loopholes and tax cuts, yet too wealthy to qualify for subsidies, my heart sags at the notion of once again picking up the slack from groups at both ends of the spectrum.

User fees make sense, if you have the money or qualify for a sliding scale. But society is becoming ever more polarized in terms of wealth. Taxes are high in Chapel Hill, but many of us are willing to pay them because of the amenities and services they cover that make our town a nice place to live. But when we’re asked to pay user fees on top of high taxes, then we inch a little farther along the haves vs. have-nots continuum. Having beautiful pools and gyms and athletics fields makes for a nicer place to live. But if they’re only available to those who have a discretionary $5 per use, then for those without the discretionary money to spend, what good are those facilities?

Members of a community take care of one another, paying taxes to cover schools and other venues and services, even if we, personally, don’t use them. But we need to find the proper balance so that our high taxes don’t push out all but the wealthy, and piling user fees on top of high taxes doesn’t create a parallel level of amenities open only to the wealthy. We would lose diversity, and if we want a community only of country-club wannabees, we might as well move to Cary.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Runner

     /  June 6, 2011

    It comes down to election day. You pay what you vote for.

  2. Fred Black

     /  June 6, 2011

    If only it were that simple! Has anyone noticed much difference in county and town budgets as a result of new people elected?

  3. Runner

     /  June 6, 2011

    Are you saying that elections don’t matter?

  4. It’s always interesting to see how campaign pledges fare after the election. A recent example – what was said about issuing $21M in bonds and the rapid and historically high increases in our Town’s debt before and after the most recent election.

  5. Fred Black

     /  June 6, 2011

    No I’m not saying elections don’t matter and I’m sure you really don’t believe that’s what I said. What I’m saying is that over several cycles, new people elected to the various offices have not had much impact on changing budgetary spending patterns. Just look at the budget approval votes over the last 16 years.

    Just my opinion, but do you see differences? After all, that was the question I posed.

  6. Scott Maitland

     /  June 9, 2011

    “As a member of the ever-shrinking demographic not wealthy enough to take advantage of loopholes and tax cuts, yet too wealthy to qualify for subsidies, my heart sags at the notion of once again picking up the slack from groups at both ends of the spectrum.”

    I know it’s popular and “cool” to make statements like the above….but can we bring the discussion up a notch in terms of credibility and accuracy?

    1) Apparently you are criticizing the income tax code when you are discussing property tax. Unless I am really missing something, there is no loophole or tax cut to evade property tax. In fact, assuming the wealthy stay in more expensive homes, they contribute far more than others do to the same exact services. How much did you pay in property tax last year Nancy? Are you saying that you picked up the slack for somebody because you paid more as a percentage of your income than they did even though they paid more than 3 times what you did in property tax for the same exact services which they probably didn’t even use as much because they are members of private clubs?

    2) Our town has overspent on services and pools and parks etc. Actually, I suggest we overspent on Town Maintenance Yards and 140 E. Franklin but regardless, we have spent more money than we should have. We need to either cut services or raise revenues. I am for cutting. But if we are going to raise revenues we have two options: 1) raise taxes on everyone, 2) charge those actually using the services. Which is fairer? Based on your body of work on this blog, you will scream either way. But I would suggest that our property tax burden is equally negatively affecting everyone….I know plenty of people in higher tax brackets that have defected across the county border because they can’t or don’t want to pay the taxes. The use fee at least affects only those that use the facilities……..

    3) In some other post, I will be happy to debate the extremely progressive nature of our income tax. For example, how nearly 50% of our citizens paid no income tax at all, and how, even with the supposed tax breaks and loopholes, the “rich” in our community pay far more in both real dollars and as a percentage on the margin than the middle class. But I think that’s for another day.

    Until then, I am with you Fred, there appears to be no change. We spend too much. Let’s stop spending and stop blaming people that pay taxes.

  7. Nancy Oates

     /  June 9, 2011

    Scott — I’m well aware that if I pay more than you in property tax and sales tax, it’s because I’m fortunate. (There are loopholes for taxes involving property; one that passed recently has to do with selling off land contiguous to the parcel on which you live. Accountants have already figured out how to jigger it to eliminate capital gains tax.) But if your figure that 50% of our citizens pay no income tax at all is correct, whether they are from the lowest income bracket or the highest, that’s an alarming indicator of the polarization of wealth. It would seem in the best interests of all of us to have a strong middle class, a large number of people who can improve their lives through hard work that garners adequate compensation. And I’d like to think that those whose hard work grants them with ridiculously high returns wouldn’t mind dipping into their excess to help others at the bottom of our polarized system. Especially people who have enough discretionary money to use to avoid mingling with the rest of us.

  8. Scott Maitland

     /  June 10, 2011

    Once again I submit that a loophole involving the sale of property to avoid capital gains bears no relevance to the issue of town and county revenue.

    Secondly, I take issue with the idea that high taxpayers pay high taxes because they are “fortunate” and not because they work hard, innovate, save, invest and take risks. Moreover, high taxpayers are then condemned because they are high taxpayers. By definition, they pay far more than others for the exact same services- shouldn’t they be celebrated and encouraged? They are in fact dipping into their “excess” to help others at the bottom of the system. At the very least they should be respected.

    Thirdly, you and I interpret the 50% of our citizens not paying taxes very differently. You see it having to do with a polarization of wealth (and actual we should be discussing income instead of wealth but I will leave a discussion of that important distinction for another day), where as I see it as a tax system that has gotten far too progressive. Alexander de Tocqueville wryly noted that America (at the time) was the only country where you can vote for a tax but avoid paying it. In addition, he noted that the American experiment will work until the politicians learn they can bribe the constituency with their own purse. We are at that point. 50% of citizens not paying ANY income tax is ridiculous. At some point, no matter what you make, you should have to help pay the freight.

  9. Nancy Oates

     /  June 14, 2011

    You’re right that we’re having parallel conversations with property tax vs. income tax. I’ll rail about high property taxes, even while I realize I’m lucky enough to own property in a really nice town. Working hard, innovating, saving, investing and taking risks don’t guarantee wealth. Vicissitudes of life get in the way, and the poor function in a different environment; for instance, they don’t have the easy access to credit that you and I do, and they don’t have the cushion we do when they invest and take risks. As for the respect, I think that far too often it gets obscured by envy.