Op/Ed by Tom Davis: Citizen Budget Committee already “off track”

On March 20, the Board of Mason County Commission approved a resolution to establish a Citizen Budget Committee tasked with prioritizing 2019 budget expenses and making recommendations aimed at cutting costs and/or increasing revenues.

Citizen budget committees are nothing new, and they are a good idea. However, as is sometimes the case, good ideas do not always have good outcomes, especially when the process is manipulated, which is the case here.    

Commissioners Neatherlin and Drexler were quick to introduce a condition into the committee by-laws that required a County Commissioner to Chair the committee and to cast the deciding vote in the event of a tie decision.  That position went to Commissioner Drexler.

What this means is that a County Commissioner will be directly involved in all aspects of what is supposed to be a citizen led effort, from who serves on the committee, to how the committee operates, to having the tie-breaking vote.  And after the committee completes its report, the same commissioner will vote on whether to accept the committee’s recommendations when they’re presented to the board on which she sits.

If all this ‘parenting’ of committee members concerns you, you’re probably not going to find much comfort in the explanation for it, which boils down to the commissioners not trusting the committee members to “stay on track”. (If it’s the same track that carried us to 6+ years of budget shortfalls, it may be time to change tracks.)

That aside, when it comes to increasing revenues there’s no shortage of ways to squeeze a few more dollars out of county taxpayers, though most are temporary patches not permanent solutions. So what exactly is the end game to offset future budget shortfalls- business growth? Not that I can see. How about residential growth? Nope, not much public appetite for that, either.

And so we stumble from one budget shortfall to the next with no long range plan how to address the inevitability of future deficits.

To that point, the most equitable path is to increase the effective property tax on timberlands and direct the difference into the general fund of the host county. More than half the land in Mason County is designated as “working forests”, which means half of the taxable land in the county enjoys deep property tax exemptions while the other half has to make up the difference. It won’t be easy because tax exemptions on timberland are regulated by the state – but the tougher the fight the bigger the prize.

The bottom line is that if Mason County wants to preserve its rural character without taxing it’s citizens into the poor house, there are but two equitably permanent solutions: one is for the state to compensate the operating budget of timber communities for lost taxes and the other is for owners of timberland to simply start paying their fair share.

Either way, we don’t need a budget committee to do those things- we need willing leaders.

Tom Davis, Shelton

 

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