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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Jayne: What’s best use of tax dollars?

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: December 11, 2022, 6:02am

At the core, it seems, the issue touches upon a fundamental question: What services do taxpayers want local government to provide?

In answering that, the guess is that most people don’t mind paying a couple dollars extra on their property tax bill. And yet some members of the Clark County Council appear tied to dogma instead of an interest in making government work best for the community.

The council last week approved the county budget for 2023. They allotted another $1.3 million for the general fund and $2.4 million for the road fund.

To arrive at those numbers, councilors first had to approve an increase to the property tax levy, taking the permissible 1 percent annual bump plus a percentage that had been banked when previous councils declined to take it.

Councilors Julie Olson, Temple Lentz and Sue Marshall voted in favor.

“Sales tax is very volatile,” Olson said. “We had one-time federal funds that won’t be repeated, we haven’t put together a capital budget, we have employees that are underpaid, we have jail needs and we’re launching a jail services department.

“We’re not advocating for anything other than responsible governing.”

That makes sense. State law prohibits municipal governments from increasing the property tax levy by more than 1 percent in a given year (plus banked amounts from previous years if an increase was not implemented).

That doesn’t necessarily mean a 1 percent increase in your property taxes year after year; it means a 1 percent increase to the total amount collected. If property values throughout the county have increased through new construction or higher valuations, your taxes might go down.

In simplistic terms, your property taxes are determined by your percentage of the county’s property value, and the increase is expected to add $7.19 annually to the median home valued at $525,000.

Anyway, when inflation is at normal levels, say 2 percent or 3 percent, the government budget is diminished when collections increase by 1 percent. And when inflation is at 7.7 percent, the government budget is gutted.

Many people see that as a good thing. But over time it adds up to less law enforcement and less park maintenance and a longer wait for building permits and fewer food inspections and less public-health assistance and more backlogs in the court system.

Government, after all, does provide some services that are necessary for a functioning society, and Olson, Lentz and Marshall deserve credit for recognizing that. Goodness knows, for an elected official, approving a tax increase is like sticking your tongue on a frozen metal pole.

But we didn’t come here to talk about the councilors who understand the nature of a structural deficit. We came to talk about Gary Medvigy and Karen Bowerman, who voted against the increase, and then against the budget because it included the increase.

There are reasonable arguments for this. Medvigy pointed to inflation that is hitting consumers and a coming increase to the state gas tax, saying a property tax increase “would be irresponsible, if not mean-spirited.”

And yet, at the same time, they joined the other councilors in approving a new contract for County Manager Kathleen Otto, giving Otto a 20 percent pay increase over the next three years.

“Our comps show that she is underpaid,” Medvigy said. “She, herself, is not demanding this salary increase. It is the council as a whole that believes she has earned it. And we want to keep her.”

Maybe. But the egregious process that led to the establishment of a new Jail Services department this year and the hiring of somebody to run it leads to questions about Otto’s management and transparency.

All of which returns us to the original questions. Because when crime is a pressing concern for residents and the Clark County Sheriff’s Office is the most understaffed in the state, it seems pretty obvious how taxpayers want their money spent, and it probably doesn’t involve the county manager’s salary.