Leave excise tax alone

September 24, 2012

Once again, the Washington County Commissioners have been tinkering with the local tax on development, this time exempting specified properties that change from one type of use to another.

It might be a minor thing, but the commissioners have spent so much time whittling away at the excise tax since its inception that we wonder why they wanted it in the first place. Of course a different board was in place when the state lawmakers gave the county the authority to tax new development, but one way in which commissioners then and now have remained consistent is in the area of eroding the funding mechanism that is supposed to help pay for new schools, roads and utilities.

Particularly egregious was the commissioners’ mark-down of the tax at a time when the county had an enormous housing glut, and no buyers in sight. The commissioners’ answer to this problem was effectively an incentive to build even more houses.

Now the housing market is returning to something resembling normalcy, and schools are being built.

Bids for construction of a new Bester Elementary School, however, came in over budget twice, and the commissioners recently voted to transfer an additional $2.1 million to the Washington County Board of Education for capital projects that the school board could use for Bester.

How numerous and how deep are the wells from which the county can pull such funding? Not all that numerous or that deep, we would guess, especially with a weakened excise tax.

The county would have been better served by enacting the tax and then leaving it alone, rather than carving out a ledger full of loopholes and special exceptions.

We understand that some developers will disagree, but in some ways it’s more fair to the building trades if they all know what the rules are and understand that the rules will not change in the middle of the game.

It is tempting to suggest that the county scrap the excise tax altogether, since our local leaders continue to muddle it. But this would be a penalty only to residents who want good utilities, good roads and good schools.

A better solution might be to restore the tax to its original level and then promise not to touch it for a determined number of years. The commissioners should remember that schools don’t stop deteriorating just because they have stopped paying the bills.

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