Municipal and county budget season, drawing to a close in the next couple of weeks, inevitable forces local officials to talk about taxes.
City managers, mayors and county administrators must come forward with budgets that balance. They also must address the concerns of constituents and councilmembers or commissioners about services that may or may not be funded comfortably within existing revenue streams.
Councilmembers and commissioners, for their part, also have to find a way to be responsive to demands for service and pressures for reduced taxes.
It’s often a very difficult time.
For several decades, it has been fashionable to prove one is “not a politician” by opposing taxes . . . period. No new tax pledges and sweeping commitments to reduce taxes often become articles of faith long before the fiscal consequences are fully understood. Such a political culture only makes responsible budgeting that much more difficult.
Every now and then, however, someone takes to the podium in a budget hearing and boils away all the layers of irreconcilable rhetoric. Such was the case at a Pasco County public hearing earlier this month over a proposed sales tax increase for transportation.
The speaker was a former GOP chairman, Hugh Townsend. He spoke directly of his general dislike for paying taxes, asserting that he was “like everybody else” in that regard. No one likes paying taxes, but, Mr. Townsend suggested, there wasn’t any way around it.
“I didn’t want to give up a right lung but I thought it would be better than dying.”
Our leaders don’t need to love taxes (I’m not sure anyone should love taxes). But taxes aren’t merely an undesirable reality; they are a necessary means by which we, collectively, address our communities’ needs. It’s not just that they are here, nor that they are as certain as death.
Taxation is necessary for the good of society.
The alternative is societal death. No police, no fire department, no emergency medical support. No streetlights or traffic signals. No schools. No parks. No clean water. No garbage pickup.
Perhaps more accurately, none of these things will be provided so that all may benefit. Only the wealthy will have them; the rest will do without.
Decisions about taxes and fees for the next fiscal year aren’t about whether we like paying taxes or fees. They are about whether we believe in local government and its duty to serve the public.
Not every proposed tax increase is necessary or prudent. But neither is every refusal to raise taxes or effort to cut fees a noble gesture.
It takes courage to buck the popular trend for the good of the community, to support a tax increase when one could just remain silent and let others take the heat.
From what little I know of Mr. Townsend, it seems hard to imagine him as a “tax and spend liberal.” Just, perhaps, a man of conviction and community spirit.
Whether he was on the right side or the wrong side of this particular tax issue, Mr. Townsend was right about one thing.
We face tough choices . . . and still, we must choose.