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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Budget season exposes inequity of state law

Life is not fair. Neither are local taxes.

It’s become an annual rite here at the Hendersonville Lightning to look back on the budget-craft of the past six months and identify themes, similarities and disparities. Life is not fair stands as a good title for the 2016 edition.
As a story and chart in last week’s Lightning illustrated, law enforcement is a major part of the overall budgets for Henderson County and four of five towns. In the county, the sheriff’s office accounts for $18.6 million in annual spending, or 14 percent of the general fund. In cities, law enforcement’s share of operating costs is 33 percent in Hendersonville, 20 percent in Fletcher and 21 percent in Laurel Park. It’s 16 percent this year in Mills River, rising to 31 percent in year 3 of the new contract with Henderson County to provide enhanced law enforcement coverage.
The figures for Flat Rock? Zero dollars, zero percent. Reverse sticker shock.
It’s not entirely an accident of the calendar that a homeowner in the Village of Flat Rock skates while taxpayers in Hendersonville, Fletcher, Laurel Park and now Mills River devote a hefty share of their tax payment to supporting the men and women in blue. Flat Rock is said to be one of the reasons the law changed.
The state Legislature changed the rules of municipal incorporation after lawmakers realized how easy it was for a small community to incorporate and slice into the sales tax pie. Counties squawked that incorporation cost them money. Henderson County two years ago quantified that. The incorporation of Flat Rock, Mills River and Fletcher — all less than 30 years old — had shifted $24 million in sales tax money from the county to the cities from 2004 to 2014. After Flat Rock incorporated in 1995, the General Assembly changed the law to require new towns to provide a minimum of four services from a menu of eight: police, fire, garbage collection, water, street maintenance, street construction, street lighting and zoning. Mills River provides streetlights, fire protection, zoning and police protection, through the county. The new county-imposed price of $387,000 — rising to $775,000 in 2018-19 — triggered the 6¾-cent tax increase in the farming community hardly known for high crime.
Flat Rock might argue that it does its part in other ways. When the Flat Rock Playhouse needed a bailout to stay in alive, Flat Rock joined Hendersonville and Henderson County in throwing a lifeline. (It devoted $25,000 of its new budget to the Playhouse this year.) An even broader contribution is the Park at Flat Rock. The village has spent $2.3 million on the park, which is used by residents countywide. As we’ve observed here before, parks across the county do not close their gates to non-city residents; nor does Hendersonville, which invested millions in the Main Street makeover, check the IDs of downtown patrons. Fletcher’s park is open to all. So is the new Rhododendron Lake Park in Laurel Park.
This unusual season of budget craft ended with a 10 percent increase in the property tax rate in Henderson County and a quadrupling of the rate in Mills River. Flat Rock, Fletcher, Laurel Park and Hendersonville held their current rates.
Mills River fought the law and the law won.
Henderson County made long-term investments in schools, health and public safety.
There’s no fighting the inequity of state law. The best way to get even is to go enjoy the Park at Flat Rock.