The Stephenville City Council has invited citizens to its meeting on 6/7 to make proposals for the for the budget the council must prepare for the upcoming fiscal year. Participating in the budgetary process is one of the best ways for citizens to work for lower taxes—provided they understand that lower taxes may produce less revenue, which may require spending cuts to keep the budget balanced.
My column of 5/3 (“Up, Up, But Not Necessarily Away”) explained why sharp increases in property valuations need not lead to sharp increases in tax rates. State laws limit the rate at which homestead valuations may be raised for tax purposes, provide for property tax rollback elections, and create opportunities for citizens to vote on local government bond proposals and select members for local taxing authority governing boards.
Of special interest are the rights and opportunities of citizens to participate in local government budgeting. After all, it is neither the Appraisal District nor the Appraisal Review Board which sets property tax rates. Rather, the rates are determined by the governing boards of the local taxing authorities—the city councils, the ISD boards of trustees, the County Commissioners Court, etc.—which determine the tax rates through developing their budgets.
But the citizen who wants to effect tax rates through participating in local government budgeting must remember the single most important relevant principle: STATE LAW REQUIRES THAT LOCAL GOVERNMENT BUDGETS MUST BE BALANCED. Tax rates and user fee rates must be high enough to produce enough revenue to cover all expenditures. If people want more spending, they must accept the possibility of higher taxes. If people want lower taxes, they must accept the possibility of less spending.
The state’s requirement that state and local budgets must be balanced stands in sharp contrast to the ways and means by which Congress and the President produce the federal budget. The U. S. Constitution does not require that the federal budget be balanced. Indeed, neither “balanced” nor “budget” appears in the Constitution at all. The omissions allow our elected national officials to be as irresponsible as they choose, buying votes with more spending and more tax cuts for various constituencies, all the while deluding themselves (and us) with their wretched falsehoods about fiscal policy. Democrats for example, tell us that the federal budget can be balanced if only “the rich” are taxed more heavily, while Republicans say that deep enough tax cuts will generate enough new revenue from a more productive economy to balance the budget.
But neither local governmental officials nor citizens wishing to cut taxes have the luxuries of tax cuts, spending increases, and reassuring myths and falsehoods that our national officials give themselves, or us. The local officials must adhere to principles and practices of thrift and economy unknown to their national counterparts.
So citizens have a perfect right to demand lower taxes. But those who do so will enhance their credibility of they remember that lower taxes may require less spending as well. Therefore, should they go before their city councils or the governing boards of other local taxing authorities they should be prepared not only to make the case for lower taxes, but to identify ways and means by which spending can be cut too. For example, one who wishes to demand tax cuts from the Stephenville City Council should not argue merely that there’s enough “fluff,” or “flab,” or “fat” in the budget which, if cut, will allow for lower taxes without affecting spending. One may wish to ponder other questions as well, such as:
- Which services should be reduced—police? Fire protection? Emt services?
- Should the city cut back on street repairs or sewer renovations? If so, where?
- Should we reduce the number of personnel? If so, who should get the axe?
- How can we save money in the procurement and maintenance of police cars, fire trucks, road repair vehicles and equipment?
- How can money be saved on Splashviille and on the maintenance and operation of SPARD’s other facilities and programs?
These are only a few of the questions that must be raised and answered if there are to be more economies which can justify lower taxes. And it’s impossible for officials to answer these questions and translate those answers into budgets without antagonizing somebody—or many somebodies. It is far easier to keep more people happy with lower taxes and more spending. Nobody likes higher taxes or less spending on their pet programs. And they can act on their unhappiness. They can vote.
So those who want lower taxes should by all means participate in the budgetary processes of the governments of their cities, school districts, and county. But they should be careful about what they wish for, work for, and get for their efforts. After all, they may get it, and all the consequences, good and bad, that will come with it.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.