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Make Them Decide Now 

Commissioners should reveal intentions

Politicians know voters have short memories, but this is ridiculous. For as long as I can remember, the Mecklenburg County Commission has only raised taxes in years in which they weren't facing election, knowing full well that pissed-off voters who filled talk radio airwaves would forget about the whole thing by the next election. Then, after the election, they'd level voters with a double tax increase like the 15 percent to 25 percent hike they hit them with last spring. It's not that commissioners didn't hike taxes this year, it's that they merely delayed this year's tax hike until next year, when they will combine what would have been this year's increase with next year's tax increase. By my calculations, the combined increase, which will take place in 2003, will be between 10 percent and 15 percent, way outpacing inflation, common sense and fiscal responsibility, as usual. All they've done is delay the hike they'll have no choice but to make to cover an additional $40 million in debt payments that will come due in 2003 from bonds the county must pay off. Then, if history is any indicator, they'll cite a crisis in welfare needs and replace the $20 million in funding they threw out this year to achieve a no-tax-increase budget, plus at least $10 million more to placate certain constituents who screamed about the increase in funds they didn't get this year. They'll make up the difference to the schools, to which they also denied full funding this year, with tens of million more in funding that was merely delayed a year.

But the coming year will be different in one critical way. The state legislature stands poised to offer the counties the option to raise local sales taxes by a half percent. If those who currently run the commission can hold off on the vote on the sales tax increase until after elections, and avoid committing to a position on it before Election Day, they'll be able to shove that through as soon as they're elected. Don't misunderstand. This doesn't mean that the county commission under Parks Helms won't also hike property taxes next year or during any other non-election year after that. It just means that the rate at which government spending outpaces inflation in Mecklenburg County will be able to grow more exponentially and it will be two years before the voters can do anything about it.

Election Day is the catch here. If the media actually forces commissioners to commit to a position on the half-cent sales tax before the election, there's a chance that there might not be a tax-and-spend majority on the commission next year. With Becky Carney's current at-large seat up for grabs and Democrat Darrel Williams moving up to run at large, there's a possibility that the tax-and-spend reign of the Helmsocrats could come to an end and the city and county could remain fiscally competitive enough to compete for new business with other lower-tax areas in the Southeast and retain what affordable housing we have left. There's a possibility that the elderly people on fixed incomes who live on my street won't have to sell their homes to find the money to pay their taxes. And there's a possibility that this county will remain an affordable place for my future children to grow up.

Between 1991 and 2000, the per capita property tax rate in Mecklenburg County rose from $386.82 to $640.78. At the rate we're going this decade, it appears that Helms has set a goal to not just double, but triple the per capita property tax rate, never mind the money the commission could be taking out of our pockets in sales tax.

All voters have to do to is tune in to what is going on around them and demand that these folks, in particular Helms and Williams, take a position on the half-cent sales tax and the near-inevitable double-digit property tax hike they'll drop on us next year. Will they or will they not hike taxes? And if so, why and by how much? It's a simple question they shouldn't get away with answering with some mumbled promise to look at the facts and decide later. As in later after the election.

Make them decide now.

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