Commentary: Give public chance to discuss tax rate

On Tuesday the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors should set its “advertised” property tax rate at a level high enough to make public debate about it worth having. This rate – the maximum possible rate the board can finally accept – will become the topic of a public hearing (now scheduled for April 13) and additional discussion before the board votes on a final rate.

This practice presumes that the board – in the interests of transparency and democracy – will benefit from a full expression of public sentiment before it makes its real decision. If the first rate is set too low – because it is the cap – public opinion will be virtually irrelevant.

Whatever the “advertised” rate, supervisors can ignore the public in other ways. Last year, for example, the “advertised” rate was set at 64 cents and on the same day and at the same meeting three supervisors – Richard Walker, Cindy Bailey and Marsh Shruntz – announced their fixed positions on a much lower rate before any public hearing was held. In so doing they rejected the very idea that the community should have an opportunity to weigh in. They also ignored the weight of opinion at the hearing itself, which was overwhelmingly for an expanded budget. In the end they voted for a 60 cents  rate and severe cuts were made.

When it comes to substance, no doubt, all three will again argue that those of us who believe we need enough tax dollars to fund good schools, safe fire /rescue operations, adequate policing, creative economic development programs, solid libraries and stable park services are overestimating their costs. All three will say that a budget already stripped to the bone is still too fat. They will say their critics demonstrate “lack of compassion” for those whose incomes have not kept pace with the cost demands of such basic services – ironically, the same citizens who need many of these services the most. They will claim that median income in the county has gone down, and with it the ability to pay. They will also argue that the number of persons needing public financial help is a growing burden.

So, let’s get a jump on what’s wrong with these arguments before it is too late and the board passes a low “advertised” tax rate” that sets the county’s income in stone. Yes, the number of those in Shenandoah County needing various forms of public assistance is growing – as it also is regionally, we must note. But, these residents are those least likely to be paying property taxes. At the same time, the number of those in the highest income brackets has gone up dramatically. True, there are fewer middle income households, but that could well be due to folks moving up into the higher earnings brackets ($100,000-$200,000), or because middle income earners are leaving a dysfunctional county. (Note: Overall median household income is not down in Shenandoah County, according to multiple sources. The U.S. Census Bureau ACS method – the one Walker uses – has median household income in the county for 2015 at $49,406, up from $47,936 in 2014.

With regard to the schools, the most dangerous consequence of cutting local funding would be loss of state funding. If our system doesn’t finance enough locally to meet the state’s “maintenance of effort” requirement by next year, the state could, and most likely would, withhold money equivalent to the required funding for this year.

Already we have indications from the budget-cutters on the board that they are ready to deplete essential services. Instead, we need to broaden the tax base here. We need to attract more self-reliant families, more business, more young families with children – the very people we all know are now turning away. The more these absent others would pay taxes, the less the burden on those who are now stretched.

The intentions of three members of the Board of Supervisors are at best misguided. Perhaps they err unwittingly, but that is no excuse.

We hope they see the light before it is too late. They must give us an “advertised” tax rate that is at least worth talking about. And, they must listen, which is their obligation in a democracy. The public deserves to be heard in a real debate, not duped into thinking its views matter when supervisors have already made up their minds.

Eugenia Kemble, of Fort Valley, is a grandmother of six and chair of the  
Shenandoah Democrats Education Committee.