On Monday, Wake County commissioners and school board members got together with a spirit of cooperation and in a mood to face reality. And that reality includes the strong likelihood of a property tax increase to pay for needs related to public education and growth.
The truth is, a modest tax hike probably would have been wise a couple of years ago, but alas the commissioners were ruled by a Republican majority that avoided any suggestion of a tax increase not tied to a bond issue for pure political showmanship.
But now there seems little choice.
There is increasing enrollment in the Wake schools. State government, run by Republicans, isn't going to automatically compensate school systems for those enrollment increases. And Republicans in the General Assembly have moved to avoid doing their part to pay for driver's education, leaving counties with another expense. Thus follows the old pattern: Raleigh Republicans proudly boast of cutting taxes but punt expenses to counties.
County Manager Jim Hartmann told commissioners and school board members what managers have long said, time and again: Growth doesn't pay for itself. The taxes that new residents pay cannot cover all the expenses associated with services and with schools.
Unrealistic tax restraint
There has been only one tax increase not connected to a bond issue since 2006, which is unrealistic in a growing county. That Wake is growing - 3,000 additional students projected in the schools annually - is undeniable.
Republicans will latch on to the discussion of a tax boost as a "gotcha" moment, as evidence the Democrats are the tax-and-spenders Republicans said they were. Phil Matthews, the former Republican commissioners chairman, said, "I don't believe the majority of people in Wake County will support tax increases."
And yet Matthews and three other incumbent Republicans lost their seats to Democrats who did not take any vows about never raising taxes. And many of those who voted for them undoubtedly figured a property tax boost was coming. Residents with kids in public schools and all those who understand that the county budget includes services that benefit virtually all residents at one time or another know tax revenue must be found.
The Wake tax burden is relatively low compared with other counties in the state and in this Triangle region.
And the county's population, which reached 1 million last year, is projected to double in the next 40 years. It's already increasing by 62 people a day. That's why new commissioners campaigned on dealing with, rather than ignoring, growth and why, for example, they recognized the need to get moving on transit options.
Commissioners have to be smart in the way they propose a possible tax increase, meeting with people, hearing them out, keeping any hike to as reasonable a level as possible.
No one likes tax hikes. Not Republicans, not Democrats. But those who are realistic understand that taxes to maintain good schools pay off in drawing high-tech businesses to the area that want good public schools for their employees' families.
To think that the county can simply keep growing without investing the money necessary to meet the demands on services of all kinds that such growth brings is fanciful. Commissioners are right to recognize that and politically courageous to be prepared to fight for it and to convince those who put them in office that a tax hike is not some wild-eyed liberal idea, but a good government necessity.
CORRECTION: Previous versions of this editorial said there has not been a tax increase not connected to a bond issue since 2006, when there has been one tax increase. Correction made Friday, Jan. 30, 2015.