Seven-year itch on property tax Carroll County: Desperation of proposed 4-H cut shows why property rate must rise.

February 27, 1996

WHETHER OR NOT they realize it, Carroll County's commissioners are trapped. The county's property tax rate of $2.35 per $100 of valuation, unchanged since 1989, cannot remain untouched for long. The commissioners must face the harsh reality that the property tax rate will probably have to rise. The only questions remaining are when and by how much.

The strategy of squeezing department budgets has played itself out. There isn't significant fat left to cut. This message was clearly delivered last week. In their last-ditch effort to trim $5 million from next year's proposed spending, budget officials suggested cutting the county's $138,548 contribution to the Agricultural Extension service's 4-H and home economics programs. Talk about goring a sacred cow! The commissioners who favor this worthwhile program revolted. In a county that still identifies with agriculture, eliminating this popular program was out of the question.

If 4-H can't be cut, what is left? Encouraging county employees not to use the county office building's elevator and to use both sides of copy paper is not the route to a balanced budget. In a government as small as Carroll's, eliminating personnel means that work just doesn't get done. The savings are transitory and the costs can be long-term. The county mistakenly thought it could save money by not appointing an economic development director for a year. The county has yet to recover.

The commissioners have successfully balanced the county budget by trimming and delaying needed spending. Continued trimming will not resolve the county's pressing short-term fiscal problems and spells trouble for the county's long-run financial health. The county's double-A bond rating could be downgraded, making borrowing much more expensive.

Raising taxes is never popular. The commissioners raised the piggyback income tax last year, from 50 percent of the state income tax to 58 percent. They could raise it again, to the full 60 percent the law allows. That step wouldn't generate enough to avoid looking at the property tax, though. At this point, all reasonable alternatives have been exhausted. Failing to increase the property tax rate this year simply means that the commissioners will have to do it next year. After seven years, it is inevitable.

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