Things we need versus things we want

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 3, 2004

As anyone who gets a property assessment notice knows, it is both good news and bad.

Our City Manager and some members of City Council would have you believe, that the growth in property values they contrive are a gift they bestow upon the citizenry. While this propaganda might be a good way for the tax and spend crowd to sugar coat the bitter pill of them taking more of your hard-earned money each year; there is a long brewing revolt about to explode.

One of the largest and most predominate corporate citizens in the city has also had enough of the property tax game. What makes this very interesting is that this same corporate citizen, Planters Peanuts, has control of a strategic piece of property our city needs for the &uot;Fairgrounds Project&uot;.

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The City has been leaning on Planters to surrender their lease of this property for sometime now. With their recent complaint of over charging on property taxes, the resulting discussion about the taxes they pay may create a very interesting discussion indeed. If the charge of inflated taxes can be proven, then there may be further challenges from other taxpayers that have had enough. This could lead to a financial crisis for the tax and spend house of cards we call City Hall and their spending commandos who have never found a dollar he did not want to spend.

With recent real estate assessments averaging at or above 10 percent, there is a real crisis of confidence in city leadership. This crisis deals with fundamental fairness, where taxpayers that are struggling with heavy-handed local taxes, collected and spent without much regard. For the last several years, the historical share of local taxes collected in our city has unreasonably shifted the tax load onto the backs of homeowners. The associated issue that has made this even more distasteful is that each and every year there is a concerted and hard-pressed effort to find more revenue to spend. There has only been lip service given to any effort for spending restraint of any kind. During this spring’s elections, there was some talk of a minor reduction in the real estate rate, but after the incumbents were secure in office, such talk was quickly dropped.

Like many tax oppressed populations in this country, it may be time to look at a structural change in law that reduces the growth rate in assessed values and total tax increases as a result. Voters are rebelling all over the country due to this issue, due to huge jumps in their property taxes.

In many parts of the country local governments have imposed big increases in property-taxes, as home assessments are driven up to fill budget shortfalls for ever increasing spending. In response, voters have and will continue to organize, in efforts to repeal or slow property-tax hikes in states from Virginia to California, with full effect to frustrate local officials as they spend more and more. Sounds just like downtown Suffolk, where we all now own a share in the new Hotel and Marina.

I would propose that it is time for a full and comprehensive overhaul of our financial house downtown. We need to reign in the big Hotel spenders, we need to slow the burden of taxes on the property owner’s, and we need to start setting realistic spending priorities. I would suggest the following as a starting point that might highlight some of the more pragmatic solutions.

First, we should establish community projects that are driven by realistic needs, rather than Hotel egos to fluff-up r\u00E9sum\u00E9s for senior city staff. We do not need to recreate a mini-Waterside for our downtown to succeed. Second, we need to adjust the property tax rate to keep them in line with the rate of inflation, which after all is the rate most of us see our incomes rise by. I would specifically propose that property taxes not increase in the aggregate, anymore than the rate of inflation plus two percent. This gives the local government a generous real two-percent increase for new spending.

The third thing we need to do is establish structural changes in law, that will insure that property owners never again are pushed into a position of unfair taxation. I would also propose that if our council wishes to spend more, they should by law, have to ask for it by a tax increase rather than rely upon a contrived method to tell us they are not raising taxes, when in fact they are.

We need to take the charge card away from the tax and spend group in City Hall and ask them to live within their means, like the rest of us. I hope that Planters Peanuts toasts the City in their argument that tax assessments are unfair. We need to emphasize the difference downtown between what is nice to have and what we need to have. The opium of spending other’s money can be a habit that is hard to break, but it is time for our city officials to go cold turkey.

Roger Leonard is a Suffolk businessman and a regular News-Herald columnist. He can be reached at