My, oh my. Not since the electric 2009 debate over the half-cent sales tax increase has the county witnessed so much wailing and gnashing of teeth over an issue like the sales tax distribution in Lee County. County commissioners have announced their intent to do precisely as state law allows (and fiscal prudence dictates) in changing the county’s sales tax distribution method from per capita to ad valorem. In effect, this means the county will retain more of the state’s distribution of sales taxes to benefit all county residents, while choosing to send less of those dollars directly to Sanford and Broadway councils to spend as they see fit. In return, the commissioners promise to lower property taxes, to reduce spending across the county, and to reduce the county’s debt burden. Lower taxes, reduced spending, less debt– what’s not to like?
Oh, lest I forget, it also means that the City of Sanford and the Town of Broadway may need to tighten their budgets. It means Sanford will have to reassess whether to keep pouring millions of dollars into non-mandated discretionary spending and exaggerated fund balances; whether they can afford to keep subsidizing the municipal golf course and giving away corporate welfare and contributions to selected non-profit groups; whether they can afford to keep expanding staff and salaries while other government entities have laid off staff, denied salary increases, and cut back on hours. The Town of Broadway will need to explore alternative means of staffing important services to replace the $104,000 or so in reduced sales taxes it otherwise would have received. (The town might well find all those savings by simply working with the county Sheriff to augment their public safety needs.)
Let’s be clear and unemotional on this issue– prudence and the facts clearly align with what the county plans to do. The first rule of fiscal responsibility in government is never to take money from citizens or businesses that isn’t absolutely necessary to fulfill the obligations of that jurisdiction. Clearly, the Board of Commissioners (BOC) is trying to obey that rule. There are 44 other counties in the state that do precisely what the Lee BOC is seeking to do- using the ad valorem method of distribution. Many other counties would also change to this method if the distribution method would be more favorable to the county, rather than less favorable. So, changing the distribution method is the wise and mainstream action to take.
Finally, it’s high time for other jurisdictions of the county to act more responsibly with our precious tax dollars. To date, only the BOC has sought to complete performance and financial audits to improve operational efficiencies in government. The school system resisted an audit but was compelled to receive an Evergreen financial review in 2011—one that found more than $10M in potential savings for taxpayers. The City of Sanford was offered the same kind of audit in 2011 (with Evergreen offering a deep discount) but rejected the opportunity.
Local political debates in Lee County these past few years have led me to this observation—the louder that local government officials squeal, the closer to the truth we are getting. Let the wailing and gnashing begin!