The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance

The Watch


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County Council Meeting April 28

Could the new sales tax restrain property tax increases
Plan for Conservation Bank to be sent to G AB for consideration
Warwick Jones, standing in for Shawn Keller who is on military duty in Iraq

It really wasn't on the Finance Committee agenda but it came up in discussion on the Fiscal year 2006 budget. Council member Scott suggested that consideration be given to shifting funding on some public works to the soon-to-be-collected half cent sales tax. He suggested that perhaps $4 million could be shifted but subsequent discussion suggested that even more might be possible. Property taxes amount to about $55 million for the County so the notional reduction on shifting $4 million would be about 8%.

Chairman Stavrinakis however voiced concern about such a move and said it would invite a law suit. But County Attorney Joe Dawson believed such a move would be legal.

However, it would be unrealistic to expect a large fall in property taxes. Indeed at best, it seems that taxes will hold steady. The Council has authorized a study of wage and salaries paid to County Staff. Strictly a study is supposed to be undertaken every five years but it is now seven years since the last study. The purpose of the study is to ensure that wage and salary levels are in line with the market. Mr. Windham, the County Administrator opined that overall remuneration was behind that of the market and that the County could be facing an increased bill of $7 to $10 million a year. This has to be set against an annual budget of over $150 million.

And as Council member Wallace noted, the County still has to construct a new jail. The need is pressing and in his opinion, it was hard to see it financed without an increase in property taxes.

Well, the good news is that the FY 2006 budget does not call for a property tax increase. But what is in store for the following year remains to be seen. Council could be hard pressed to contain an increase.

Conservation bank proposal to be send to Greenbelt Advisory Board
Council member Bostic obviously spent a lot of time preparing his ordinance to create a County Greenbelt Bank. His proposal was available to Council members some three days or so ago and was under consideration by the Finance Committee last night. Generally the comments of Council members could be summarized as "Great idea, well put together, but…..!"

The biggest "but" related to the Greenbelt Advisory Board that has already been created by Council to oversee the spending of the half cent sales tax. The referendum late last year approved the sales tax increase. A lot of opposition to the tax stemmed from the concern as to how responsible the political powers would be in spending the funds. To overcome these fears, the Council created two advisory boards - for Transportation and Greenbelts - with each member of County Council and the Mayors of the Cities within the County choosing a member. In this writer's view, the creation of these boards was the key to the referendum's success.

The importance of the Greenbelt Advisory Board, the obligation to voters to proceed with what was promised, the seeming considerable duplication of responsibilities, and the cost of staffing, weighed on Council members minds. The Council voted to ask the newly formed Greenbelt Advisory Board to consider the Ordinance proposed by Council member Bostic and present its views. The Advisory Board (of which this writer is a member) has not yet met but a meeting is scheduled for next month.

In very broad terms, the Conservation Bank proposed by Council member Bostic will function in many respects similarly to the Advisory Board. However, it will have the ability to raise and spend funds independent of the Sales Tax. Council member Bostic sees the seed money for the Bank coming from the Sales tax. And although he expects funding from the sales tax to continue, he expects the Bank to also be active in soliciting private donations or other government funding. As the Council member points out, it is designed to be a local version of the South Carolina Conservation Bank.

The proposed bank will have a board consisting of nine members and each will have defined qualifications. For example, there will be a realtor, an appraiser with experience with farmland, forest and conservation easements, a lawyer, a banker or accountant etc. The members will be appointed by the County Council by majority vote.

Interestingly, the proposed ordinance made no reference to the existence of the Advisory Board. Indeed, the proposed ordinance reads as if the Advisory Board does not exist and that the Bank has the prime responsibility for overseeing greenbelt spending. The only acknowledgment made was during the presentation to the Finance Committee. As well, no reference was made to Parks and Recreation which also has responsibilities in relation to greenbelts. Council member Bostic envisaged that the Bank would be "allocated" funds by the Advisory Board and that these funds could be spent by the Bank at its will. Spending less that $500,000 could be made without Council approval, spending above this amount would require Council approval.

Council member Bostic did not see a problem with both a conservation Bank and an Advisory Board. He believed that the Advisory Board would meet infrequently, more to create policy than to approve projects. I wonder whether the voters in the referendum thought this way. I believe that the majority expected the Advisory Board to consider all Greenbelt projects proposed for funding.

For the record, I was asked to address Council and as a member of the Advisory Board, give my views. In summary, my concerns were the duplication of duties, the potential unwieldiness of the approval process, and the possible cynicism of voters to a change in what Council promised. I also noted that the board of the Bank would be appointed by Council and by a majority vote, not by individual members as with the Advisory Board. This would make it possible, theoretically at least, for a bloc of Council members to control the Bank. This flies in the face of the purpose of the Advisory Board as presented to voters at the time of the referendum.

Was there anything good in the proposed Ordinance? There certainly was. It provided a thorough description of duties, responsibilities, programs and procedures. In fact, in large measure it could be a blue print for the actions of the Advisory Board. And may be it should be. Chairman Stavrinakis noted that the ordinance was more to his liking than the structure and purpose of the Advisory Board. However, in creating the Advisory Board, he had to acknowledge the interests of the mayors of the Cities within the County. He also stated that he was reluctant to tamper with anything that had been promised voters.

Maybe a solution to the issue is that the board of the Conservation Bank should comprise the present members of the Advisory Board and that directors in future, should be appointed the same way as those of the Advisory Board. If this were acceptable, the Advisory Board could be closed and its duties assumed by the new Bank. There would be no breach of confidence with voters, and no duplication of duties between the Bank and the Advisory Board.

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