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Busting Budgets In Gaston County

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As local pols are working on looming 2014 budgets, I read the Gaston County budget for 2013. Certain things stand out. The first is that, unless county staff has had a change of heart, they have no intention of trying to keep taxes as low as possible but are seeking every avenue they can to increase taxes and wages for the bureaucrats at the expense of the taxpayer. Examples abound.

In the overview of Gaston’s 2013 adopted budget, Ms. Jan Winters, County Manager, tells the reader that the Locke Foundation has stated that 85% of the county budget is due to state mandates. By twisting the meaning of that statement, Ms. Winters leads one to the conclusion that the state requires the county to spend the amount of money it is currently spending and that amount can’t be reduced. This is typical bureaucratic tripe. The statement that 85% of the services the county provides may be required by the state does not lead to the conclusion that there is no way to save on providing those services.

Certainly efficiencies can be found and reductions in costs to perform the required services can occur, but only if one wants them to occur. But Ms. Winters is not so inclined, and so leads the reader a different direction.

Elsewhere Ms. Winters informs of other counties that have increased the pay of their employees and thus so should we. Wonderful, she picks her examples. She could instead tell us of the counties that haven’t increased their pay. Why did she not? That’s an easy answer; it wouldn’t serve her purpose.

We are told Gaston schools are older than schools in Mecklenburg, Iredell, Cabarrus and Union counties due to our low growth rate. What is the point of this statement? She may just as well say: if the sun comes up, it will be in the sky. If the county is growing in population, then we will need more schools. If we build schools for these new students, they will be new schools. Since we aren’t building schools, the schools are older. It seems obvious. Instead of how old the school buildings are, we should be asking the only legitimate question, which is: are the schools we have well maintained and in satisfactory condition to meet the educational needs of the children?

Conversely to this, Mecklenburg has burdened their taxpayers with new schools, tearing down older ones just to rebuild, but that hasn’t related to better educational results. Gaston needs to keep its focus on educational results, not buildings or the age of buildings, or how many staff need be hired, but how well the students are learning.

Ms. Winters has the audacity to tell us our tax rate isn’t high enough. How she rationalizes that is simplicity itself. She says that by following her recommendations Gaston County will have the second highest tax rate in the state, where previous to that it would be only the 7th highest. Obviously she thinks that is a tough sell so she decides to use a different measurement, one that she can sell better. Looking around for what is available she finds that property taxes paid per person is a much better number to use. There Gaston only ranks near 30th from the top. It doesn’t change the tax rate from being the second highest in the state, but now she can talk about being in the middle. The problem here is, while she says using that value is a more accurate assessment, she is in fact attempting to mislead the taxpaying public but, more importantly, its purpose is to mislead the county commissioners who set the tax rate.

The fact is our tax rate is close to the highest in North Carolina. In a county with a high unemployment rate, those who have the security of a government job should be glad to have that job and shouldn’t be clamoring for a raise, especially when that raise requires a tax increase on the people who already pay close to the highest rate in the state.

Instead of trying to find ways to tell us how wonderful a job she is doing, and why taxes should be higher, Ms. Winters should be trying to find ways to reduce costs to better serve here employers, the taxpayers of Gaston County.

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