By L&T Publisher Earl Watt
Cities, counties and school districts will all be working on their budgets for the upcoming year, and those budgets will be printed in the classified section of the Leader & Times.
As a community, we have certain expectations that usually involve one key phrase — “Do not raise my taxes.”
It’s a blanket statement that means we expect our governments to be operating as tight a ship as possible.
Let’s not misunderstand the phrase altogether.
It doesn’t mean, “Stop picking up my trash,” or “Stop filling potholes.”
There are some who believe we should have a zero on our property tax statements each year, but they also want quality water service, safe streets, a fire department and a police force.
There are some fundamental expenses that none of us can do without, and the vast majority understands that taxes are necessary to maintain our public works and infrastructure.
Too often, Washington has been a poor example of how tax dollars are supposed to be used. We have all seen the reports of the lavish “conventions” and perks that have been handed out to public employees on the taxpayer’s dime.
And we have seen the wasteful spending like millions to study how shrimp run underwater.
When we pay the federal government our tax dollars, we never saw it as a way to redistribute the wealth but to pay for the necessary items like the military, federal parks, even for the Environmental Protection Agency to adequately look out for the environment.
Some of these organizations have gone overboard, and by doing so have hurt what good our overall tax dollars can do.
It seems the further from home our tax dollars go, the less control and oversight the people have.
Local taxes, too, can be abused if not watched.
In the small city of Bell, Calif., it was discovered that the city manager earned $800,000 while the chief of police was being paid $457,000 in 2010. Part time city council members were pulling down $100,000 each in a town of 38,000, and the city’s personal income was only $24,800 per capita.
Abuse can happen.
Here, we keep a closer eye on who it tending the store. Our leaders make nothing even close to those numbers. City commissioners make less than $6,000 per year for the time they put in on the commission.
This paper has no problem asking for, and printing, the salaries of our leaders so that the public is well aware of the cost of government.
We expect a lot for a little, and we have leaders at the city and county doing just that.
So the blanket statement, “Don’t raise my taxes” is probably more accurately, “Don’t waste my taxes.”
How do we know if our leadership is being good stewards of our tax dollars?
How, when and why they raise them is one indicator.
Seward County has had modest tax increases over the past few years, but they have not been funding an overreaching or expansion of government. Employee salaries were frozen for years, and several positions have been consolidated in an effort to reduce costs.
Perhaps the biggest freeze on tax increases has come from the City of Liberal. There have been no mill levy increases there for seven years in a row and City Manager Mark Hall has been able to provide all the necessary services of the city on the same dime today as in 2006.
According to measuringworth.com, the purchasing power of a dollar is 12 percent less today (it would take $1.12 to purchase what $1 bought in 2006). That means the City of Liberal has had the equivalent of a 12 percent cut across the board.
Is that sustainable?
With so may cutbacks at the city, it would seem that continuing this path would be harmful. With fewer employees looking out for public property like parks, investments made in landscaping and lawn maintenance could be lost since the city does not have the manpower to care for them all.
We have to decide if an eighth year of no mill levy increase is worth the loss of services to the community.
Some modest increase to maintain current services and to care for what we have is not irresponsible.
We have seen the city’s reserve shrink over the past few years, and we simply cannot expect to remain at the same level forever.
There is only one way to avoid tax increases, and that is to be adding new properties to be taxed. Due to the housing crunch, that isn’t happening. There is expected to be some changes coming to the housing stalemate, but until they do, we have to provide the resources to have the city we want.
Hall and the Liberal City Commission have exhibited financial restraint over the past seven years, and they have earned the public’s trust for a slight increase to maintain what we have.
And no, the 1-cent sales tax didn’t replace the need for property taxes, but to provide for the above-and-beyond items that we could not have without it.
For the protection and preservation of our parks, if nothing else, requires a properly funded budget. Cutting the fat is one thing. Cutting to the bone is not what the people of Liberal want from their city.