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The rest of the story on the rebate plan

September 30, 2005|by William Wivell

It certainly must be a slow news week at The Herald-Mail, for the news and editorial staff seem to be focused on creating stories rather than reporting them. This situation certainly applies to the news articles and editorials about the recent decision by the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) to refund $2 million to taxpayers from the fiscal year 2005 surplus.

It makes for a good story to report that the commissioners blundered in calculating the amount of the refund. The fact of the matter is that, during discussion of disposition of the surplus and potential refund to taxpayers, various amounts were openly discussed.

Since a refund to taxpayers was not a part of the original staff recommendation, the commissioners did not have detailed information in front of them in order to make a per-account determination of the amount.

The BOCC chose instead to focus on a total amount to be refunded to taxpayers. Contrary to Tim Rowland's suggestion, it was not a matter of simple division. The refund could be made to all accounts, all taxable accounts, residential only, or include commercial accounts, as well. It could be prorated according to taxable assessment.

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A higher amount could be allocated to those receiving low income credits or the amount could simply be spread evenly among the number of accounts to which the commissioners decided should be eligible. All of these options were discussed. If the total $12 million were to be refunded, it could very well be in the $300 to $400 range, depending on the accounts identified. The BOCC agreed that we would focus instead on a total amount to be refunded and ultimately agreed on the $2 million amount.

The direction was further provided to county staff to return at a later date with additional information so that a final determination could be made in regard to the disposition of the refund. Once this determination is made, I agree that it then becomes a matter of simple math.

Rowland further suggests that the BOCC's discussion of the rebate was worse than the recent mistake discovered at the Board of Education in regard to certain teacher salaries. I disagree. In the case of the BOCC discussion, no money was actually spent. The system worked and a final determination will be made in regard to disposition of the set-aside amount at a later date.

The Herald-Mail editorial has further suggested that my position has changed from that previously of wanting to preserve agricultural lands to a position now of refunding tax dollars. I admit that in the past I had discussed a flat fee per account dedicated solely for agricultural land preservation.

This discussion took place prior to knowing the extent of new tax dollars being available to the county. I'm certainly not going to support a new tax when the county is projecting receipt of $12.7 million in new general fund tax dollars in its fiscal year 2006 budget. One of my colleagues was quoted in the newspaper as preferring to set money aside for ag preservation from current general fund dollars in lieu of a new tax.

I agreed and proposed just that - identifying a reduction of $1.2 million in new money being allocated to various departments in our fiscal year 2006 budget and suggesting that these monies, all or in part, be set aside for ag land preservation.

These adjustments were not accepted by the BOCC and accordingly no additional general fund money was set aside for preserving ag lands on an annual basis.

It is unfortunate that an elected body cannot have open discussion without being ridiculed by a newspaper that not only encourages strict adherence to the open meetings laws, but actually does make plenty of mistakes on its own. I am beginning to believe that the Newspapers In Education program is undertaken so that students can obtain bonus points for identifying spelling and other grammatical errors in the local newspaper.

William Wivell is the vice president of the Washington County Commissioners.

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