Wake taxpayers are willing to pay for a quality county

Wake County taxpayers deserve an award for public investment. They’ve accepted five consecutive years of county property tax increases, they voted last fall to approve $1.1 billion in bond issues, and now they face a proposed property tax increase of nearly 10 percent.

In some parts of the state and nation that record would spark a tax revolt, and tax hike opponents did come out for a public hearing on the proposed $1.47 billion budget. But all indications are that the Wake County Board of Commissioners will easily approve the tax increase at its June 3 meeting. There’s even speculation that a majority of the board will approve adding an extra $11.8 million to fully meet the Wake County school board’s request for a record $48.3 million increase in local funding.

What explains the taxpayers’ willingness to pay more? Perhaps the most significant reason is that despite the string of increases, Wake taxes are still relatively affordable. Wake’s current tax rate of 65.44 cents per $100 of assessed value is the lowest in the Triangle and lower than the major urban counties of Mecklenburg, Forsyth and Guilford.

In addition, Wake needs to make up ground after five years of no tax hikes by a tight-fisted, Republican-majority board led to deferred maintenance and investment from 2010 to 2014. Now those investments are being made. The recently approved bonds will provide $548 million for school construction, $349 million for Wake Tech improvements and $120 million for the expansion of parks and greenways and the purchase of open space. Paying for those bonds accounts for more than half of the proposed tax increase.

Taxpayers also understand that growth doesn’t pay for itself. A growing tax base adds tax revenue, but not enough to offset the demands more people put on the schools and public services. The Census Bureau reported this week that Apex has the third-fastest growing town of at least 50,000 residents in the nation, and Knightdale was the fastest growing town in North Carolina.

The proposed tax rate will raise the county property tax bill on a $300,000 home to $2,154 — a $191 increase. That bump will bring a lot of improvements. In addition to the improvements paid for by the bonds, the county will add personnel and ambulances to its EMS services, add medical staff to the sheriff’s department to help jail inmates with substance abuse and mental health problems, add case workers for child welfare services, increase funding for the county Board of Elections’ operations, open three new libraries and give county employees a 3 percent raise.

But the property tax increases — the current proposal and those of the past several years — are not only about growth. They are about maintaining the quality of the county’s services, parks and schools in the face of declining and more restricted state support. The General Assembly has made tax cuts its first priority, a series of cuts that are now costing the state $3.6 billion annually. Those cuts are putting pressure on local budgets.

Of the Wake schools’ request for an additional $48.8 million, $19.5 million is driven by state policies such as an unfunded mandate to reduce K-3 class sizes, increases in the local share of retiree costs and more money being passed through the school system to support more charter schools, a trend the legislature is encouraging.

A tax hike of nearly 10 percent is a big lift, even for a wealthy county with a historically low tax rate. But Wake taxpayers are willing to pay what it takes to support the quality of services — and the quality of life — that have made Wake County a fine place to live.