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Is small tax rebate best use of county surplus?

September 23, 2005

This past Tuesday the Washington County Commissioners voted 5-0 to send $2 million of the county's $12 million surplus back to the taxpayers as a rebate.

Their first calculation was that most property owners would get $400, which is a tidy sum. But a few hours, and a bit of number-crunching later, the commissioners found that their first calculation had been in error.

Instead of $400, it would be $40 per taxpayer, which is about the price of a gas tank fill-up these days. The commissioners seem determined to go forward with the rebate, however, and probably will credit it against property-tax bills.

Given that 2006 is an election year, nothing short of a natural disaster is likely to deter the commissioners from following this rebate strategy. But, given that the rebates we're talking about are so small, is it really the wisest use of surplus cash?

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Commissioners President William Wivell, who recommended the rebate, had a different idea this past January, when he recommended a $10-per-account surcharge on all developed property to raise extra cash for farmland preservation.

The surcharge would have raised $450,000, which at the price of $3,200 an acre for farmland easements would have preserved about 140 acres.

The $2 million surplus would purchase 625 acres worth of easements at those prices, which, incidentally, were just $2,300 an acre two years ago.

Contrary to what some critics have said, farmland preservation is not just about the desire of some residents to be able to look at a rural landscape.

Land that is preserved is land that won't be developed, which means that taxpayers won't have to build additional schools and pay new teachers' salaries.

Nobody likes to pay taxes and any relief is certainly welcome. We just ask taxpayers to consider whether, given the small rebates involved, this is the best way to spend surplus county cash.

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