Boots & Sabers

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0711, 17 Feb 16

Missed It By That Much

I missed an anniversary. On February 7th, 2006, my first column ran in the West Bend Daily News. That’s 10 years of columns – 500+ for a total of over 350,000 words. The blog predated the column by about three years. I had been blogging for a while and gaining some notoriety. At that point, blogs were still a relatively new medium and newspapers were trying to figure out how to keep relevant in the internet age. Conley management made the decision to reach out and include some prominent local bloggers, like James Wigderson and me, on their opinion pages.

The article introducing me to the pages of the Daily News said:

The Daily News Opinion page just got a little more locally opinionated on Tuesdays.

A new column by Internet blogger Owen B. Robinson of West Bend is beginning today.

For Robinson, opinion writing is an extension of his nature.

“I care about issues. I have a philosophy and approach to the world that I would like to see spread.

“Why do people write opinion columns? Because they’re opinionated and they think they’re right about everything.”

Not much has changed. And to prove that not much has changed, below is my first column. It was advocating for ending the county sales tax, which continues to live on. And Herb Tennies is retiring this year.

In 1998, Washington County was in a bit of a pickle.  Several large capital improvement projects, like an expansion of the University of Wisconsin Washington County, the courthouse addition, and new Highway Department facilities, were looming and there wasn’t going to be enough tax revenue to pay for them.  In the face of a crisis, the County Board did what governments always do – they raised taxes.

In this case, the new tax came in the form of a half penny county sales tax.  They also designated part of the sales tax to be used for debt service, but that didn’t kick in until three years ago.  Since 1999, the sales tax has removed over $49,400,000 from the pockets of people who choose to spend money in Washington County.  Since the new sales tax was primarily for one time expenses, the County Board put in a provision that says that the County Board can vote to stop collecting the tax in 2006 – this year.  If no vote is taken to stop the tax, then the tax will continue indefinitely.

In September of last year, the County Board passed an advisory resolution to continue the tax by a vote of 21-6.  The advisory resolution was necessary to gauge the board’s intentions on the tax so that county officials could properly budget.  Obviously, the board’s intention is to continue the tax.

A week from today, on February 14th, the County Board will vote on how to allocate this soon-to-be-perpetual tax.  The current plan is to spend 40%-50% of the revenue on debt relief and property tax relief, and the remainder on new capital spending.  The ratio will shift in later years and more of the revenue will be spent on property tax relief.

Given that the original reason for the tax has long since passed, why does the board want to continue it, you ask?  I’m glad you asked.

Some time ago, I called my county supervisor, Herb Tennies, and asked him the same thing.  He was very friendly and took a great deal of time to speak with me.  It’s a shame that he’s completely wrong.  He gave three basic arguments.

First, he said that approximately 25% of sales tax revenue comes from people outside of the county.  So, he argued, people from outside of the county are subsidizing Washington County, which is a good thing.

While this may be true, it is also true that 75% of the tax is still paid by the people of Washington County.  Furthermore, isn’t it a tad inappropriate to force people from outside the county to pay for our county government?  After all, the people of Washington County are the ones that use the county services, so we should pay for them if we want them.

Second, Mr. Tennies said that the sales tax is used to prevent property taxes from increasing.  He said that he will only vote to continue the sales tax if 50% of it is used for property tax relief starting in 2009.

It was silly to use one tax to offset another tax.  After all, the tax burden is the same.  It just comes from a different pocket.  It must also be noted that property taxes are tax deductible for federal taxes.  The sales tax is not.

Beyond that truth, we have too often been told that one tax will be used to reduce another tax and then seen both taxes go up.  The resolution says that 50% of the sales tax is to be used to reduce property taxes in 2009, but that’s three years away.  It only takes one vote by the board to change that.  Frankly, I will be shocked if 50% of the sales tax will be used for property tax relief in 2009.

Herb’s third reason for wanting to continue the tax was that the county needs the money.  He listed off a few projects for which they “need” the money.  It didn’t seem to occur to him that the county could “just say no” to some of the spending.  This mind set of his is far too typical in government and is why our taxes are so high.

Ifwe continue to leave this revenue stream in front of politicians, they will continue to find excuses to spend it.  This reminds us of two cardinal rules of government:

1) Any money left in control of government will be spent.

2) Any tax created will never be removed, even if the original justification for the tax is gone.

The reason that the County Board gave the taxpayers for levying a sales tax has long since expired.  This County Board should honor its promise to the taxpayers and vote to kill the sales tax.

Thanks for reading, folks.


0711, 17 February 2016


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