How much money should a county spend to add $1.85 billion to its tax base and nearly 700 high-paying jobs to its private workforce?
In principle, we oppose corporate welfare because we don’t think tax dollars should go to for-profit companies. Then again, we’re not county commissioners with bills to pay.
Every year, Johnston County Commissioners need millions of dollars to build and operate schools, pay teachers, equip and pay law enforcement officers, and provide aid to the poor, among other things.
When those costs rise – and they rise every year – commissioners have to decide how to cover the higher expenses. Not even the most liberal county boards of commissioners delight in raising taxes, and in all but the worst of financial times, it’s reckless to take money from savings to pay recurring expenses. Ideally then, boards of commissioners hope growth in the tax base is enough to cover higher spending needs. (And let’s be honest, commissioners everywhere must quietly look forward to property revaluation because, in percentage terms, it routinely yields a double-digit increase in the tax base. That’s extra money to pay the bills.)
Johnston County has been fortunate because in most years, growth in the tax base has allowed commissioners to pay for higher spending needs without raising property taxes. Yes, commissioners have used revaluation to their revenue advantage, and they sometimes take money from savings to pay recurring bills, especially solid waste disposal. But Johnston taxpayers have been spared frequent tax increases because the county’s residential and commercial tax base continues to grow. On Wednesday of this week, Johnston Commissioners had a chance to grow the county’s tax base by roughly 12 percent all at once. To accomplish that, they had to agree, essentially, to return a private company a total of $94 million in property taxes over the next 15 years.
That’s a lot of money, which is to say that $94 million would pay quite a few teachers and sheriff’s deputies and provide aid to many of Johnston’s poorest residents. Then again, the company won’t get back 100 percent of its taxes every year, and the incentives will stop completely in 15 years. Put another way, the company will, over time, pay more to Johnston County than than it receives in tax breaks.
All of which is to say that it’s easy to oppose corporate welfare in principle. It’s no doubt much harder to say no when there are bills to pay.