- - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The final days of September are a time of last-minute budget wrangling in towns across America. Most cities start their fiscal year next week, and the skirmishes over pennies in a town budget are sometimes more vicious than a Washington argument over billions.

A small town like Mulberry in central Florida treats each of those pennies with the proper respect. Residents will pay municipal taxes that have been lowered by the city commission trimming spending by 13.5 percent.

The City Council in Hattiesburg, Miss., eliminated unnecessary jobs, and it didn’t have to go to the taxpayers to pay for a street-paving project. Despite lower than expected tax revenues, town officials in Folkston, Ga., held water and sewer rates steady and even reduced property taxes by a small amount.

If only aldermen elsewhere would follow these examples. In Tampa, Fla., city leaders boast that tax rates haven’t increased lately as an excuse to raise the property tax by 5.2 percent. This will enable Tampa to spend $9.3 million to redevelop a waterfront park, $1.5 million for recreation projects, including dog parks, and $287,184 on travel. An additional $3 million will be given to nonprofit organizations.

So not all the news is good. York, Pa., plans to levy taxes on commuters to come up with $2.5 million to pay for ballooning pensions and years of fast-and-loose spending. “It’s unfortunate,” Carol Hill-Evans, the City Council president, tells a television reporter. “I wish there was some way around it. I wish there was something we can do to avoid [a tax increase]; unfortunately, there just isn’t.”

But maybe there is “some way around it” if the politicians will grit their teeth and do the right thing. Spending last year included $36,100 for entertainment at a Labor Day party, a “Bike Night” and a jazz festival. York taxpayers covered $5,000 in travel expenses for the mayor, another $5,000 for an “Art in the Park” event and $2,500 to give away in prizes.

There is clearly “something you can do” to avoid a tax increase. Stop giving money away.

The giveaways are nearly always for “a good cause.” The Indianapolis City Council will raise taxes to pay for “additional police officers,” a familiar budget ploy. Municipal money gets shuffled from one pot to another, and only the most popular causes — like more cops — get top billing. Most constituents are more impressed when the city fathers say the money would go for a new football stadium or renovating a track for bicycles.

Moorhead, Minn., taxpayers will have to pay a 4 percent property-tax increase to cover expenses for the mayor’s reception at the city’s Scandinavian Fest, a pricey city awards banquet, golf courses and ice-skating rinks.

Elected officials can throw parties and enjoy themselves because raising taxes is usually painless — for them. A few citizens complain, but they have learned that a few pious words about the need to pay for schools, orphanages and saving the hospital usually suffice to make it through to the next budget year.

Town fathers (and mothers) who make the harder choices to cut waste, eliminate unneeded positions and respect the value of their constituents’ hard work sets a far more impressive example for towns and cities everywhere.

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