I work for Cranberry’s Board of Supervisors. The Board has made it abundantly clear that they expect their Township to be well-managed, responsive to residents, and a community of choice for people to live, work and play. That’s not a new philosophy; it’s been their guidance for years.
Even so, I agonized for several months over proposing that the Board consider a modest property tax increase for Cranberry’s 2012 budget – the first one since 2004. I wasn’t troubled about the increase being too big – it would actually only average about $64 a year, bringing the amount the average homeowner pays in Township real estate taxes to $356 a year. Instead, I was worried that America’s political discourse during the past five years or so has recast the notion of taxes from being the price we pay for public services, to being a distinct form of evil. That same line of argument has also painted government itself as a malevolent force – a disease that needs to be beaten back.
Of course, nobody wants to be seen as an advocate of evil. So, just for the record, I want to make clear that I too am against evil, and so is our Board. At the same time, however, we are also charged with responsible financial stewardship. And acting responsibly – paying our debts, maintaining our assets, providing the services people demand, and planning ahead – all require a certain amount of money.
Until recently, a significant share of that money came back from Harrisburg, to which our residents regularly export their income, sales, and gasoline tax dollars. But since the middle of the last decade, the transfer of tax dollars back to local governments has steadily declined while the cost of providing just about everything has soared. Our Library, for example, has seen all of its costs go up, while its state support has dropped more than 40 percent since 2004; even less is on the table for 2012.
In the past, the share of Pennsylvania’s gasoline tax returned to local governments paid for repaving local roads and provided the equipment used to maintain them. Now it pays less than 50 percent. Other programs returning federal and state tax dollars to local communities have also been curtailed. As a result, the gaps between what things cost and what we receive to pay for them have been steadily widening over the past decade. And it’s been compounded by a stream of new but unfunded mandates on municipal governments coming down from state and federal authorities.
So we’re faced with an unhappy choice. We can leave taxes at the same level and, over time, allow the roads to deteriorate, let the parks decline, turn our backs on building maintenance, reduce library hours even more, and cut back on fire and police resources – essentially kicking the can down the road and turning those problems over to future Boards and Managers. Or we can make the decision to step up and pay for the things that really matter – the ones we truly value. And that was the course I recommended to our Board.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe people really don’t mind living in a community that’s a little run down. Maybe we can handle a few less fire trucks and police cars on our roads. Maybe we should ask our volunteer fire fighters to spend their time passing the boot instead of training. Maybe clearing roads in the winter really isn’t such a big deal after all; we can always say that clearing them a day later is okay. Maybe our athletic fields would be better off overgrown. Maybe having a top-notch credit rating isn’t all that important. Maybe repaving doesn’t really matter that much, particularly if you want to show off your SUV.
On the other hand, maybe those things really do count for something. At least that’s what I suspect, and that’s the reason I’ve asked our Board to consider raising people’s property taxes. Here’s why: Over the years I have been tremendously impressed by the pride Cranberry residents have in their community and its resources. And it’s not just boastful chest thumping; they also understand the connection between feeling good about a place and its economic vitality. I am convinced that Cranberry is the reason Butler County ranked sixth highest in the nation for creation of new jobs. It’s why, year after year, new companies move here along with good, family-sustaining jobs – an explicit goal of our 1995 Comprehensive Plan. Our essential premise, then and now, is this: when you create a great place for people to live, everything else will grow out of that.
However, maybe I missed something here. Maybe community decline is something people really are prepared to accept in return for keeping their local taxes the same, despite inflation, despite growing demand, and despite declining state and federal revenue.
Am I wrong? I’d welcome your thoughts and suggestions as we formulate our budget for what looks like a very demanding new year. But beware: as the 2012 elections approach, we should brace ourselves for even more heated rhetoric and misleading bombast about government and taxation.
Feel free to write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a more detailed decription of the 2012 Proposed Budget, click on the following link: