Why would anyone vote to raise his own taxes?

by Brian Clarey

That’s what thousands of voters will be asking themselves on Election Day in Guilford County, when a referendum on the ballot will ask citizens to decide if they will voluntarily increase sales taxes in the county by .25 percent.

That’s not a lot of money on an individual basis, though Commissioner Billy Yow says it would raise about $12 million annually for the cash-strapped county. And considering the hole the county has dug for itself — largely by voters, who approved bond referenda in 2008 totaling more than $500 million — even $15 million wouldn’t make a big dent in the county budget shortfall, which is estimated at $1.5 million, and the cost of servicing the loans incurred by the bonds, which will add $52 million to next year’s budget.

So the short answer is, if you voted “yes” for the $412 million school bond or the $115 million jail bond in 2008, then you would be obligated to vote “yes” on the tax increase. But you probably won’t. Because taxes suck, right?

The thing is, voting “no” on the sales tax increase doesn’t mean we don’t have to service the debt we have accrued. Understand that, as a governing body, the commission has the authority to levy taxes whenever it sees fit — that’s one of the reasons why we are able to get bonds in the first place. So if voters shout down the increase in sales tax, we can reasonably expect a modest increase in property tax to come down the pike, one not subject to the whims of the voters. And that may happen anyway, because home values are going down, decreasing overall revenues.

By putting this issue in the hands of voters, the commissioners have deftly sidestepped the issue in a political climate that can be described as hostile to tax increases. But consider the words of Yow, who said in May, “When the time comes, there’s gonna be a tax increase. There’s nothing any of us can do about it. And people knows that day’s a-comin’. But it doesn’t have to be today.”

What should happen is that tax increases be paired on the ballot with bonds, so that voters can make the connection between borrowing and paying back — but that’s probably not going to happen.

Instead we go through the farce of “voting” on a tax increase that has been, for all purposes, preordained ever since 2008.

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