Wrestling with the budget bear

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By John Barnhart

    I hope the folks on the Bedford County School Board and the Bedford County Board of Supervisors have a great Christmas, because they are going to have some very tense times after the first of the year. That’s because it will once again be time to climb down into the pit and wrestle with the budget bear.
    Some weeks ago the school board did something which could help matters. The board chose to begin looking seriously at redistricting some students to make better use of school facilities. Students could potentially be moved from Forest Elementary and New London Academy to relieve overcrowding at those schools, taking advantage of available capacity at Big Island and Boonsboro.
    The school board is making a wise move for two reasons. In the first place, it’s the most reasonable thing to do. It’s better than having the students go to class in trailers or insist on new construction. Trailers are not a good long term classroom solution. Furthermore the county is already on the hook for building a new middle school, a project that will gobble up most of the extra state funding the school division is anticipating when the county inherits the city’s local composite index (LCI). Insisting on adding classrooms to Forest and New London, while classroom space is available in other schools, would be unreasonable.
    The school board is also making a wise move because, once it has developed its budget for the next school year, its representatives will be coming to the supervisors, hat in hand, asking for more local money. If school board members expect the supervisors to be receptive to increasing local funding for the school division, they are going to have to convince them that they have made every reasonable effort to economize as they developed the budget.
    School board members are going to have to remember that convincing the supervisors to cough up more money is not going to be an easy sell because the real estate tax is the source of most county government revenue. The real estate tax is also one of the most unfair, inequitable taxes in America.
    Raising government revenue through a real estate tax was equitable back in the 11th century when William the Conquerer compiled the Doomsday Book, a survey of all real estate in England for tax purposes. A property’s value was a measure of the property owner’s income and, thus, ability to pay back in those days because his real estate produced his income. That isn’t necessarily the case today as this tax is applied on people’s homes, property that does not produce any revenue, and the value of these homes is only loosely related to the homeowner’s income. That’s particularly true of elderly homeowners who have lived in the same place for a long time.
    The supervisors are very sensitive to the inequity of the real estate tax. Some people in Bedford County can certainly afford to pay higher real estate taxes. Others would find a higher tax bill difficult to cope with.
    So, just raising the tax rate to provide more school money is not an easy proposition. Finding more school money without a tax hike won’t be an easy proposition either.  The supervisors will have to be convinced that they have no other reasonable choice but to provide more local funding to the school division.
    By the way, I know that in the last couple of years some people who have called for an increase in the county’s real estate tax rate point out that it has been higher in the recent past. However, before they choose to go down that road again, they should keep in mind that higher tax rate was applied to lower real estate values. People’s tax bills and the revenue that tax rate yielded were not higher than they are today.