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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Don't eat the ice cream

Ice cream first or ice cream for dessert?

It’s melting away, says Commissioner Bill Lapsley, and we ought to serve it to taxpayers now.
No, let’s stick it back in the freezer, say three other commissioners. There may come a time when the taxpayers really crave ice cream and it will be really good that we don’t have to go buy some.
At last week’s meeting at the Board of Commissioners, Commissioner Lapsley reprised his crusade for a property tax rollback. Lapsley argues that Henderson County has for the past 10 years socked away plenty of money in its fund balance — so much, in fact, that it can afford to give some back to homeowners and businesses in the form of a property tax rollback.
“I believe that the taxpayers expect us to keep a reasonable fund balance,” he said. He predicts it will grow to $50 million, and he says that is “is a good number that’s way above the 8 percent the state requires and way above the 12 percent this board set as a goal. We should be close to balanced” at the 12 percent standard.
Lapsley makes the case in part because he’s cracked the code on the county administration’s ability to sandbag on both sides of the ledger by underprojecting revenue and overprojecting operating cost. The county also has taken advantage of favorable borrowing terms. It’s refinanced debt six times in the past several years. As the rate continued to descend toward zero, County Attorney Russ Burrell jokingly told commissioners that soon bankers would be paying them to lend money.
Add to that sales tax revenue coming in higher than projected and Lapsley says the county is collecting more money than it needs.
Three other commissioners take the view that while the rainy day fund is plenty fat, the forecast of rain is plain to see, in the form of $193 million worth of past, current and future capital projects, including the $30 million health sciences center, $53 million Hendersonville High School, $25 million Edneyville Elementary School, $14.6 million Innovative High School, $13 million emergency services headquarters and (the purportedly shrinking) $20 million law enforcement training center.
Commissioner Grady Hawkins, who has twice joined Lapsley on the losing side of a 3-2 vote to roll back the tax rate, retreated from the tax rollback camp last week, saying commissioners ought to instead set aside the surplus for future debt service — which peaks in 2020, at $22 million.
Hawkins is right. So are the commissioners who forecast other needs ahead — and predict that some needs are unforeseeable.
Last year’s 5-cent tax increase was a fiscally sound decision that puts Henderson County on solid footing even as it embarks on its biggest capital spending schedule in memory. Commissioners would be right to leave the rate where it is — and provide a level of assurance to taxpayers that the debt service spike won’t trigger a tax increase three years down the road. So, no, don’t eat the ice cream yet.