by Ivan Foley
On her way out the political door after being defeated in the Republican primary held Aug. 2, Beverlee Roper, first district county commissioner, proposed cutting the property tax levy down to one cent.
Roper made a motion to do so at Monday’s public hearing setting the tax rate. After some lively discussion, her proposal to do so was voted down 2-1.
Her desire to cut the property tax rate came just two years after Roper and Duane Soper, second district commissioner, had voted to raise the levy from one cent to six cents. Their reasoning at the time was to use the money generated by the tax increase to make the annual payment on the county’s emergency radio lease.
During Monday’s tax rate hearing, Roper said her reasoning for wanting to slice the tax back down to one cent was because “my opponent raised this issue. She put out lots of stuff. And she won. She is here today. I know she thinks it should be one cent. And I know that you agree because you gave her (campaign) $500,” Roper said to Ron Schieber, presiding commissioner.
Roper said the amount of the 2017 radio lease payment is already in the bank, as it was included in the 2016 budget. the county will make that payment in December of this year for a payment that is due in February of 2017.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Roper said of cutting the tax to one cent.
The rate proposed by Roper would cut the county’s revenues by about $1,020,000 per year.
In the beginning of what became a lengthy discussion, Schieber remarked: “So you want to put that burden on the next commission to try to figure out to how to make that payment?”
“You have a whole year to plan,” said Roper, who will leave office Dec. 31 after serving one term.
The winner of the GOP primary, Dagmar Wood, faces opposition in the November election from Andy Smith, who through a petition effort has had his name placed on the general election ballot as an independent. The winner of the November general will assume the duties of office on Jan. 1.
Schieber, who was elected in 2014 and took office Jan 1, 2015, said to Roper: “For the past year and a half I’ve talked about this realigning of taxes to prioritize law enforcement. There has been zero planning in this county. County commissions have kicked the can down the road on realigning taxes with poor planning and now you want to give no opportunity for planning to the next commission.”
At that point in the discussion Soper announced he would not be voting in favor of Roper’s proposal.
“We just learned last week that our insurance costs, health insurance and workers comp are going to go up $450,000. Last year we set aside half a million dollars for ‘futures’ (a potential area for jail expansion) and we’re not going to have a penny to go toward any law enforcement facility unless you save it.”
Soper, who did not seek reelection for a second term, said: “I’m not going to be the commissioner that’s gonna walk out of here and do what’s been done before. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to put the next commission in a position to fail because I want to reduce it. I can’t do it.”
Soper appeared to be referring to an action taken in September of 2004 by then associate commissioners Michael Short and Steve Wegner. Both had just lost hard-fought primary elections to Tom Pryor and Jim Plunkett, with taxes and spending a big part of the campaigns. At the tax rate hearing that year, Wegner and Short--in a move many observers believed was politically-motivated to spite the incoming commission--cut the tax levy from 10 cents down to four cents. That decision by a lame duck commission, which was also supported by then-presiding commissioner Betty Knight--cut about $900,000 from general revenue budget for the incoming commission.
Roper again commented on the election campaign leading up to her defeat at the polls to Wood in August.
“This was vicious. I don’t mean to be petty but it was very vicious. We tried to do the right thing,” by raising the tax levy two years ago.
“I wouldn’t do it if the money were not there for 2017. But it is there. You and I created it,” she said to Soper.
Schieber explained he eventually would like to see the property tax levy rolled to zero.
“A property tax is one of the worst kind of taxes. I would like to move it to zero under a specific plan that realigns the tax structure so that law enforcement has a funding source. I think it’s premature to move it to one cent because there has been no planning to make sure law enforcement is prioritized,” Schieber said.
“The county has gone 20 years without a plan and now you want me to plan in a year?” he said to Roper.
“Before I came into office and shortly after I arrived I proposed that we realign sales taxes to make law enforcement and emergency radios a priority,” Schieber said.
Roper argued that the county parks tax couldn’t be changed because of the debt on the community centers.
“We can’t realign the park tax because of debt. There’s no way to change it legally,” she claimed.
“Yes, there is a way to change it legally,” Schieber said. And in the meantime, Schieber said, the county “should be paying every dime to maintenance and paying off that debt.”
“We have had that discussion over and over again about making sure law enforcement is a priority over amenities. Each time an amenity is built I sit and cringe knowing that we could do better in this county if count government focuses on law enforcement and roads,” Schieber said.
He continued to Roper: “It’s not that I don’t love libraries and it’s not that I don’t love parks, it’s that for 16 years now amenities have taken priority over necessities. Now for political purposes you are going to put the next commission in a place. . .””
Roper then responded: “I’m not doing this for political purposes.”
Schieber said: “Absolutely you are.”
Roper: “What I’m doing is following the will of the voter. A campaign was run against me on a 500 percent tax increase that I voted for.”
Schieber then questioned Roper on what she had done in her term to raise law enforcement to a higher priority.
“What did you do to try to make law enforcement a priority? Everybody in a county commission campaign says law enforcement is a county commission priority but then sit there and we do absolutely nothing,” he said.
Soper pointed out in 2014 he had proposed an alternative plan that would have called for a vote to realign the taxes to 3/8th for parks and 1/8th for law enforcement through the year 2024. He said it would have provided about $2 million per year to law enforcement. Neither Roper or Jason Brown, presiding commissioner at the time, supported Soper’s proposal.
Schieber said a look at the budget tells the story of where the county’s priorities currently lie.
“If you want to see where priorities lie look at someone’s budget numbers. Look at the size of our law enforcement budget compared to the amenities budget. If you want to see where priorities are today you can look at those budget numbers. If you want to see where you’re going to be 10 years from now, look at the tax structure. The tax structure has been out of whack for at least eight years if not longer. There has not been a commission with the guts or the will to say ‘you know what, it’s time to do what we say in campaigns.’”
Schieber then added: “I would love to take this to one cent but that’s political and irresponsible. I believe we will (eventually) get to one cent but it has be done under a specific plan.”
Schieber then explained what he says the record shows was done by the county commission in place at the time the half cent park tax came up for renewal in 2009.
“The commission’s disucssion at that time originally was to do a quarter cent for parks and a quarter cent for the radios. And for whatever reason people on the commission at the time (commissioners at that time were Betty Knight, Jim Plunkett and Kathy Dusenbery) did not have the will to do that,” Schieber said.
“For whatever reason there were arguments between the commission and other departments and the commission and other electeds. Politics gets in the way of good policy decisions. So the commission just said ‘we’re going to do a half cent.’ Those were the discussions that were held prior to the renewal of the park tax or the county wouldn’t have been sitting in a position where radio payments couldn’t be funded,” Schieber added.
“Move forward with your political move,” he then said to Roper.
“It’s for the next commission to decide and not take the 500 or 600 percent increase (that she and Soper had voted for in 2014) and live off that. The next commission is going to come in saying ‘I’m anti tax, I’m anti tax’ and here I am saying let’s reduce the tax to one cent,’” Roper said.
She claimed her reasoning was not political.
“That’s not a political move. I don’t have any future in politics,” Roper remarked.
“Let’s move on,” Soper then said.
The vote on Roper’s plan to cut the levy to one cent then failed with Soper and Schieber voting against.
Soper then made a motion to keep the general property tax levy at six cents per $100 of assessed valuation. That motion passed with Soper and Schieber in favor and Roper opposed.
Asked after the meeting to comment on Roper’s proposal and Roper’s remarks in making the proposal, Wood told The Landmark:
“I was opposed to the county's property tax levy increase when Commissioner Roper voted for it two years ago and believe it should be reduced as soon as possible. I support reducing it as part of a serious financial analysis with open discussions and stakeholder input on where specific cuts would be made. Truthfully, I don't believe Commissioner Roper's amusing idea was well thought out.”
The county’s annual lease payment to Motorola for the digital emergency radios is around $1.2 million. There are about five years of lease payments remaining to be made, county officials have said.
County officials say one cent of a the county property tax levy generates a little less than $225,000 in revenue for the county, so the five cent increase that passed in September of 2014 with the intent of going to the radio lease payment, generates around $1.25 million annually.
At that 2014 meeting Jason Brown, presiding commissioner at the time, voted against the tax levy increase while Roper and Soper supported it. Brown had proposed budget cuts from the general fund or a realignment of the county’s half cent sales tax for parks as other funding options for the radio debt.
Last year, with Schieber in office as presiding commissioner, the commission unanimously voted to keep the levy at six cents.
In other tax levy settings made by the county commission on Monday, the rate for road and bridge was approved to remain the same as last year at .3239 cents per $100 assessed valuation and the levy for Drainage District No. 1 was set at .0764 cents, down ever so slightly from last year’s .0767 due to growth in assessed valuation within the drainage district