Bannock County Budget Gone Wild
- 16 March 2008 by Author 0 Comments
Bannock County Budget Gone Wild
By Richard Larsen
Published – Idaho State Journal, 03/16/08
When government reaches the point where the apparent function is to perpetuate the interests of the government itself, rather than looking after the people’s interest, something critical is lost in our democratic system. When government leadership reaches the point where it no longer seems answerable to the electorate it is sworn to serve, it’s time for change.
That seems to be symptomatic of what’s happening in Bannock County. The County budget for 2008 represents a pillaging of the citizenry for a $10 million increase that will have to come from taxpayers and fees to cover an out-of-control county budget that increased by 27% this year alone.
This is troubling enough on its own. But coupled with the adamant rejection of a $20 million bond to renovate Holt Arena because of the added property tax burden it would impose, the actions of the county commission represent an egregious breach of trust, horrible judgment, and a severe detachment from the realities of our financial environment.
Of equal consternation is the inexplicable reticence on the part of local media to cover this. It shouldn’t be the job of a lowly columnist to bring these things to light; it should be the duty of an attentive and objective local media.
The principle source of revenue to cover for this budgetary blunder would have to be property taxes. That’s the only source I can imagine for the funds. That being the case, a little background and history may help in understanding how they could get away with this.
The Legislature met in special session in 2006 and passed the Property Tax Relief Bill. The purpose, in part, was to remove maintenance and operations costs for schools from property tax funding. In lieu of that, a 1% sales tax was tacked on for Idaho tax payers to support the maintenance and operations of our schools. The effect of the bill was to reduce property tax levels since they have been rising to the point where those on fixed incomes were unable to keep pace with the increases from year to year.
The effect on property taxes was to be a three-tenths of one percent decrease in the property tax rate at the local level. Too many people get hung up on the property tax levy rate. The levy rate itself just determines how much of the total tax bill is paid by individual property owners. Remember, the county and municipalities set budgets based on what they want, and then assesses the tax collections to support those wants, which is where they arrive at the levy rate. Since they can factor in new construction on top of the maximum 3% increase per year, they can “doctor” the levy rate quite effectively, and make it look like we’re paying less per household while really the tax-payer is being taken to the cleaners.
Well, let’s see what has happened in actuality. In 2005, the Bannock County budget was $38.2 million. In 2006, it rose just slightly to $38.3 million. In 2007, after the Property Tax Relief went into effect, the budget dropped to $37.2 million. But for 2008, the budget will be $47.2 million. That’s nearly a 30% increase from 2007 to 2008!
As I understand it, when Jim Guthrie, Craig Cooper, and Steve Hadley were serving on the County Commission, they did all they could to keep expenses low, and they collected just enough in property taxes to keep the County solvent and in a position to meet it’s obligations and provide the services required.
The current commission, however, voted two to one, Larry Ghan and Lynn Whitworth in the majority, against Steve Hadley in the minority, on the current budget. The vote would have undoubtedly been the same to utilize a look-back feature called a “foregone” amount that allows local entities to recapture any lost property tax revenue they had not collected for prior years. With the fiscal discipline exercised by Guthrie, Cooper, and Hadley, there were a lot of savings for those years they ran the County. It would appear that the current commission has recovered all those savings from previous years, and along with other sources including fees, to pay for a $10 million budget increase.
I’m sure the prevailing commissioners can spin a wonderful tale for why their budgets are skyrocketing as they are. One of our commissioners thinks Bannock County should be on a par with Ada County. Well we can’t afford a mini-Ada County in Eastern Idaho!
It truly seems the perspective of county officials has become distorted. Rather than government serving the people, in a convoluted twist of priorities, the people are now subservient to the county.
I had hoped to delve into the finances of the cities of Pocatello and Chubbuck as well, but just didn’t have the wherewithal to do so. I don’t think the city fathers have been quite so egregious in their abuse of the local taxpayers, but it may make for some interesting reporting for an enterprising and not-easily-hoodwinked investigative reporter.
It’s no wonder Commissioners Ghan and Whitworth don’t want underlings running for their jobs. A county employee would have insights into the machinations of county government that could blow the lid off what’s really going on down there.
This same mentality that now dominates in Bannock County has nearly ruined New Jersey and Michigan; the age-old concept of taxing until it either becomes too painful or the citizenry rises up in revolt to declare that enough is enough, and “we’re not going to take it any more!” They never seem to know how to cut spending, just increase it, and then tax commensurately. I submit that we’ve reached the point where we shouldn’t take it any more. The national clarion call in politics is for change. It should be obvious that it’s time for change in Bannock County. We can’t afford any more years like this one.
Richard Larsen is President of Larsen Financial, a brokerage and financial planning firm in Pocatello, and is a graduate of Idaho State University with a BA in Political Science and History and former member of the Idaho State Journal Editorial Board. He can be reached at email@example.com.