Idealism is so fun. It’s romantic and exciting and it just feels good.
Practicality is no fun. It’s dull and tedious and it is often as palatable as a nice hot glass of sand.
Idealism is the sound of raised voices, fervent and strong. It’s the sound of a growing chorus of cheers and boos and simple truths spoken with conviction.
Practicality is the dull murmur of the bean counter and the technocrat. It’s the little voice that reminds us from time to time that the simple solution isn’t always the best solution, that one size doesn’t really fit all, and that some truths are pretty darn complicated.
It’s this battle that’s been raging in Washington County over the last few weeks. Joined in no small part by some out-of-work former politicians with agendas of their own, and a few current politicians angry about having lost their taxpayer-funded insurance benefits, many citizens have railed against the lack of transparency in the local economic development process.
They see the county commissioners who voted in favor of funding a $1 million incentive package to keep a major employer in town (and growing) as poor stewards of their (the taxpayers’) money. They worry that the commission will run through the funds on hand and then raise their taxes to fund more spending.
But not all truths are so simple. And the fact is that while the county may or may not really want to invest $1 million to grow 25 to 75 jobs and keep another 189, it can ill afford not to. In fact, if the company leaves, one should expect taxes to go up sooner.
Think about it.
Fewer taxpayers means a greater tax burden per payer. And who are taxpayers? The vast majority are those of us who are part of the labor force. Most of us would say we are overburdened with taxes as it is, yet the problem is getting worse.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we already have less money with which to pay taxes than most. Washington County, despite being the 10th most populous county in the state, ranked 27th in weekly wages in 2014. We were 18 percent below the state average and 30 percent below the national average.
And Washington County has been going in the wrong direction. In the last 10 years, the county’s population has risen by more than 17,000 souls to around 126,000. Care to guess the size of the increase in the county’s labor force during that same decade?
How is that possible?
A number of factors contribute. The labor force is defined as the number of individuals who have jobs or say they want a job. This county has grown by a remarkable number of people who neither have nor want jobs. Some are retirees, though not as many as you might think. The average age of a Washington Countian has risen only one year, from 39 to 40. Immigration also plays a role. But so too does a sense of entitlement.
So despite a population that has grown by 17,000, Washington County now has fewer employed citizens than it did a decade ago. In 2005, BLS statistics showed the county as having 55,617 employed citizens. The most recent employment figures show 55, 266.
In the last calendar year, the number of jobs in Washington County fell by 1,421. Again, few taxpayers means a greater burden on each individual payer.
Idealists will point out that if we are more fiscally conservative, we can live within our means, even as those means shrink.
Practically, however, the truth is a bit more complicated. First, we don’t want our means to shrink. That is, unless we’re alright with dropping wages, failing roads and bridges and declining schools.
Second, we live in a staunchly conservative Republican county. Our government has been fiscally conservative for years. It’s not like we live in Massachusetts or California.
The county’s accounting software, for instance, has been in place since Dolly Parton was a regular on The Porter Wagoner Show. We’ll have to pay more to replace it now that it’s obsolete than we would have had to at any of a number of points in the past when we were busy being too fiscally conservative to pay for an upgrade. The list price on a current replacement system runs anywhere from $500,000 to $5 million.
The price of doing business doesn’t go down. The costs of labor, equipment, and materials needed to run a county are going to keep rising. We need new jobs and investment just to keep up, much less to gain ground beyond where we once were.
Our county commissioners know all of this. They’ve studied the statistics. They know the facts. Many have just gotten their first taste of how difficult it can be to make unpopular decisions in the county’s best interest. Barring a miracle, it won’t get easier for them or us.
We may have to have tax increases to invest in schools and infrastructure to bring better paying jobs to the county. And that will be no more palatable than that nice hot glass of sand. But it will still be less bitter than the tax increases that will be forced upon us when the decreasing number of us who still have jobs have to pay for county services for the increasing number who don’t.
It’s far from ideal. But it’s real.