Op-Ed

Wake County keeps hiking taxes but taxpayers aren't taking up pitchforks

New Wake County Manager David Ellis, center, is introduced by county commissioners during a press conference on Feb. 12, 2018 at the Wake County Justice Center. Commissioners from left: Jame West, Matt Calabria, Jessica Holmes (chair), Sig Hutchinson, Greg Ford. (Not pictured: John Burns).
New Wake County Manager David Ellis, center, is introduced by county commissioners during a press conference on Feb. 12, 2018 at the Wake County Justice Center. Commissioners from left: Jame West, Matt Calabria, Jessica Holmes (chair), Sig Hutchinson, Greg Ford. (Not pictured: John Burns). The News & Observer

The Tea Party’s over in Wake County.

The anti-tax movement never fully bloomed in this mostly blue county, but Tea Party zealots enjoyed a few years of no new county taxes under Republicans until Democrats swept them out in 2014. Still, it’s remarkable how little resistance has arisen to the all-Democratic board’s approval of three consecutive property tax increases with a fourth one called for in the proposed budget the board will vote on June 4.

At a public hearing on the budget Monday evening, teachers turned out wearing red to support the school board’s request for a $58 million increase in county support for the schools. Others praised the $1.3 billion budget proposed by County Manager David Ellis, especially the $15 million added for affordable housing. There were no pitchforks or “Don’t Tread On Me” flags.

One voice of dissent came from longtime tax opponent Russell Capps, president emeritus of the Wake County Taxpayers Association. Now 97, recovering from heart surgery and walking with a cane, Capps approached the commissioners to repeat an old refrain: The county should find other ways to save costs or raise funds rather than pass another property tax increase.

“Somebody has to speak for the poor taxpayer,” he said.

A few others agreed, including a retired teacher, but the overwhelming message during the 90-minute hearing was that the county should be spending more. Speakers described once clean schools that have become dirty for lack of janitors; a top student whose choice of college was stymied by his lack of access to a guidance counselor; teachers who had to do the work of social workers and a homeless mother who found dignity and safety for her children thanks to county help with affordable housing.

Largely absent were complaints about seniors who can’t afford property tax increases on a fixed income, how higher taxes drive up rents or how tax rates affect business development.

Where were those people?

“That is a puzzling question and it’s a question I do not have an answer to,” said Ed Jones, president of the Wake County Taxpayers Association, who spoke at the hearing. “We get complaints from hundreds of people, but it’s hard to get them to come out.”

Jones speculated that tax increase opponents have concluded that the board’s Democrats are committed to spending more and objecting is pointless. “It’s a sad thing when people feel that it’s a waste of their time to voice their opinions to public officials,” he said.

But the lack of resistance may have more to do with Republicans than Democrats. The refusal of the Republicans to raise taxes when they controlled the board set the county back and held tax rates below that of similar North Carolina counties. Most taxpayers realize taxes need to catch up to the demands of a fast-growing county.

Wake taxpayers also realize that Republicans who control the General Assembly have cut state funding for schools and imposed local mandates without providing funds. Legislative leaders stress how they’ve cut state corporate and personal income taxes, but they’ve also created pressure to raise local taxes to offset state funding cuts.

Nonetheless, Democratic commissioners realize there is a limit to how often they can increase taxes. The demands of growth and the austerity of the state legislature eventually won’t be enough to justify going to the property tax well year after year.

If they do, the pitchforks, and the Republicans, will be back.

Barnett: 919-829-4512

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