That seems to be true in Cobb County as well, where Commission Chairman Tim Lee has proposed a 1.61 mill, 17 percent hike in property taxes that he and the board will vote on today. He argues the increase is needed to maintain the high quality of services provided by the county government, and said in a recent civic club speech, "There is no more cutting to be done."
We agree that Cobb in recent decades has provided generally outstanding levels of services for its residents, and done so in a usually efficient manner. An argument can be made - and Lee has been ardently making it - that those services are a big part of what puts Cobb ahead of its peers, and that they are worth paying higher taxes for.
But a better argument can be made that this is not a time for business as usual. The national, state and local economies are still ailing in ways unparalleled since the Great Depression, with Cobb's unemployment rate at or around an unprecedented 10 percent for the past year and with a huge drop in real estate values undermining the local economy - and kicking the legs out from under the county tax digest. This is not the time to hammer property owners even further by raising their taxes. Lee's proposal would mean an additional $111 for the owner of a $200,000 home - not a huge increase, but every dollar counts in times like these.
Well, businesses don't have the luxury that governments do of demanding their customers - (i.e. property tax owners) - pay more for their product. A business can ask whatever price it wants for its product, but the customer has a choice of whether to buy. Not so with government, which has a virtual monopoly on all or most of its services. If it is inefficiently run, or wants to expand or has spent itself into a deep hole, no problem. It just raises its "prices" (i.e. taxes). And once those "prices" are raised, there's not much that the "customers" can do about it without risking serious legal problems for themselves.
When a business finds itself in hard times, its choices are much fewer. It can raise its prices and risk fewer sales; it can cut prices to attract more sales; it can reduce the number of products it offers; or it can lower its personnel costs, either via layoffs and furloughs or wage freezes and cuts. None of those steps are appetizing, but they are sometimes unavoidable. And while the county government has reluctantly considered some of those steps, we expect that more of them will have to be taken before the current crisis is over.
Lee and the commission have made $53 million in cuts since 2007, but they obviously have not been deep enough, not with a continuing budget deficit of over $30 million expected. Moreover, with the economy showing few signs of recovery, there's every reason to expect that even if the county commission does vote today to raise taxes, we might be having the same argument next July and the following July about the need to raise them yet again. The better course is to look more closely for cuts and drawdowns, rather than pushing the problem to next year and crossing all one's fingers and toes.
"My concern is if we take the easy route and raise taxes, we'll never have the incentive to take a hard look at improving efficiency," he said.
Commissioner JoAnn Birrell, also of east Cobb, told the MDJ she would not support a tax increase until all cuts were exhausted. We suspect most residents believe that in a bureaucracy as big as Cobb's that more cuts - and deep ones - can still be found.
So with all due respect to Chairman Lee, we would argue that not only is he wrong that "there is no more cutting to be done," but that such cutting must continue, and keep continuing, until the economy turns around and the tax digest recovers. In short, it's time for Cobb's leaders to do what they must to ensure that our county government really does "run like a business."