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Enough, already: Excise tax should be kept, or eliminated

March 07, 2011

If, as the saying goes, one should never watch the making of law and sausage, what degree of eye protection might Washington County residents need whenever the commissioners take up the matter of the excise tax on new construction? Since its inception, the commissioners have fussed over the excise tax like a prom date over her hairdo. It’s either too high, too low, too specific or too inclusive. It???s either too much burden on contractors or of too little help toward public projects. With every loophole that has been closed, another has been opened. On Tuesday, the commissioners were at it again, voting 4-1 to end?? a provision that doubled the tax on big subdivisions. To the commissioners, we would offer a one-word spot of advice: Enough. Either repeal it or leave it in place, but stop treating the excise tax as if it were some old car engine in constant need of tinkering. The excise tax charges developers for growth, and uses the revenue to pay for the schools and infrastructure that the growth creates. It???s not a perfect concept, but what tax is? We understand that builders do not like the tax, and consider it to be a drain on the local economy. They might be right about that. But we would suggest that this county has far too much spare housing on the market as it is, and the last thing we need at the moment is to add to this inventory. By their action, it would almost appear that the commissioners are saying that all our problems would be solved if only we had more big subdivisions filled with empty houses. It makes no sense. ?? It will ultimately be to everyone???s advantage, developers included, when this serious housing glut is reabsorbed into the market. Artificial kindling of more construction only delays the day when things get back to normal. And on another front, if there???s one other thing that developers generally do not like, it???s uncertainty. How can they confidently invest their capital in Washington County if the commissioners keep changing the rules? It???s certainly true that growth is stymied at the moment, and as the price of gas increases, the attractiveness of Washington County as a bedroom community diminishes. But the day will in all likelihood return when growth is back; by the time this becomes apparent to will be too late to go chasing it down with yet another excise-tax modification. In the end, we agree with Commissioner Terry Baker, who believes that the tax-doubling provision is a valuable tool to have in place. Removing it is no smarter than disabling a smoke detector because the house isn???t on fire. If the commissioners really believe that the tax is so flawed that it must be perpetually fixed, then perhaps it needs to go all together. At least that way, if our own taxes go up because there???s no money for roads or schools in the future, we will know who to hold responsible.

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