Published: Mar 17, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Mar 17, 2012 02:43 PM
This years budget season will be interesting. Local governments are already positioning for a tax hike and blaming others for the problem. Cuts to popular programs, layoffs and other threats are preferred to discussing excesses that no one wants or needs. Instead of fighting one another, can our leaders work together toward a rational model for town and county services that works? One that we all can afford?
Start with the landfill. Town leaders threatened a tax hike to cover increased landfill fees and hauling costs after the county landfill closes. This was a surprise, since the county landfill and recycling fees are the highest in the state. The towns are now free to pursue alternatives.
Chapel Hill is doing just that. With their fresh look at short- and long-term solutions, Chapel Hill will likely find good alternatives that save money. Once they decide on a solution, theyll still have to unravel a convoluted maze of taxes, fees and intergovernmental accounting in order to accurately reallocate the nearly $15 million that taxpayers spend each year on trash and recycling services.
Consider the latest tax crisis brewing around emergency services. The county is working tirelessly to introduce "service districts" which allows the county to levy a new tax without a voter referendum! Service districts are billed as a separate tax item, so politicians can claim they didnt raise property taxes."
Just last week, the county staff offered to take budgetary control of the emergency radios and establish a new service district to pay for them. This action shifts $5 million from the budgets of the towns and the rural fire departments to the county. This proposed bookkeeping change will increase taxes but does nothing to improve service
The county commissioners threw the service district hot potato over to their new Emergency Services Workgroup which is not versed in taxing authority or its implications. The workgroup cant levy the tax but the commissioners can use a workgroup recommendation to justify the tax increase.
There are problems with the countys emergency services that need serious attention. If the emphasis is on public safety as a rational for a tax increase, important discussions about service, costs and alternatives may not occur.
As an example, county leaders purchased eight luxury ambulances at a cost of $250,000 each. Theyre expensive to operate and are not suited to the countys rural service area. They have difficulty accessing homes with narrow roads and driveways.
By contrast, Alamance County put 10 emergency vehicles on the road for $1 million. By mixing large, urban ambulances with smaller ambulances and immediate response vehicles, Alamance residents enjoy an ambulance response time of nine minutes vs. 18 minutes in Orange County. In northern Orange, families wait 45 minutes or more for an ambulance assuming the ambulance can get to their home at all.
The county needs to improve its emergency response but without a razor focus on service, costs and alternatives, all taxpayers can be assured of is higher taxes.
Finally, consider the sales-tax increase that voters approved last November for schools and economic development. Last month, county leaders asked the schools to cut their budgets by $1.2 million the same amount that the new sales tax would provide!
This is all in addition to the ongoing saga surrounding libraries and other essential services that every citizen supports. Dont forget the ongoing frustration with disjointed planning and support services, and the massive real estate holdings of all our governments. Without attention, these issues will continue to burden taxpayers and services will suffer.
On the horizon is another sales-tax increase to fund a confusing and complicated plan for mass transit. The word is getting out that Durham not Orange County will benefit, and that the plans emphasis on light rail undercuts funding for much-needed countywide bus service. Wouldn't it be refreshing if, voters were given all the facts before they were asked to vote on a new tax.
Orange County voters deserve an honest and transparent discussion of services, taxes and fees including upcoming projects and liabilities that are likely to impact us beyond the current budget cycle. As our town and county governments grow in size and cost, it is essential that they work together to deliver quality, and affordable services starting with schools, health and public safety? We rely on our leaders to protect the long-term fiscal well being of our communities rather than just passing the buck.
Bonnie Hauser is the president of Orange County Voice, a grassroots community organization that advocates for the rural community.