Commentary: Property owners will make tax decisions on election day

It is exciting drama watching the Shenandoah Board of Supervisors decide on the tax rate for the coming year. But it also is scary.

Let’s remember that it is the property owners who pay. Do you remember the California city where the public employees and the City Council got together and, forgetting the taxpayers, gave themselves terrific retirement checks?  I think the sheriff ended up with a retirement of almost $500,000 a year.

The Shenandoah board, with the help of county staffs, has framed the choice as an automatic increase in the tax rate, but is leaving us in temporary suspense as to how much it will be.  The board members are considering whether it will be from 1 to 7 cents, for a total increase from 57 to 64 cents.  It is in the interest of county government to go whole hog.

These pennies per 100 dollar assessed valuation really mean hundreds of dollars more or less in your taxes.

Take a typical property in 2015, for example. The tax rate was 57 cents, which totaled $1681.50 in taxes.  So for this same property, at 64 cents, the tax bill would be an additional $199 for 2016.

But the county has been getting poorer in recent years. So rather than increasing the tax for the property owners who are growing poorer, the board should really consider dropping the county tax rate, by about the same amount it proposes to increase – from 1 to 7 cents.  I would like the county to set a goal of 50 cents and see how many years it takes to get there.  This would fly in the face of the county government’s desires, which regularly proposes increased spending from year to year. But it would reflect the reality of a county that is getting poorer.  It would be like the homeowner who schedules fewer chicken dinners and more deer meat from the home freezer because dad’s take home pay has shrunk.

And it would avoid the fate of the California city that went bankrupt, though leaving many rich retirees.

But how can the county economize?  It has been comfortable with increasing each year. But going in the opposite direction in spending requires much harder work by the county board and some sacrifice by the department heads. Looking at travel budgets is always a fruitful source of economy. And it’s fair as it usually hits both county employees and board members. And go from there, exploring each account with a critical eye and downsizing wherever possible.

For example, instead of contemplating an increase in the Sheriff’s Department, it should consider cutting its staff by one or two.  Board members can examine each department more closely to determine which offices can be cut and by how much. The key should be, in a declining county, a spirit of conservation and cooperation.

As for the excitement of the board’s calculations: it is clear there is a split among members on how much the sheep are to be shorn. So that can raise a little hope among the taxpayers.

But changing direction for taxes is much like steering a train. You cannot suddenly veer left or right. You must slow to a stop and then start backing up.

Perhaps the most taxpayers can hope for this year is a halt in the increase and pray for cuts in the future.

For the taxpayers this year, there are two factors to watch:  which members are pushing ahead with an increase in the face of declining county property values.  And how much of the proposed increase the board finally chooses.

For most homeowners, the taxes are paid as part of the monthly mortgage. You get a letter from the bank that the total payment is going up.  But you must remember the decision was not in the bank’s power.  The tax rate decision is being made in the county offices.  Specifically, the responsibility lies with the Board of Supervisors. Property owners, hopefully with the bankruptcies of cities around the country in mind, will make their tax decisions election day.

Bonner Day is a journalist who has retired in Shenandoah County.