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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Conservatives win in budget vote

Henderson County commissioners invested in public safety and crime prevention, granted a modest public school funding request and made good on an overdue promise to Green River this week as they finished up their work on the 2013-14 budget — all without raising taxes.

The conservatives won.
In turning down a proposed 1.36-cent tax cut, a narrow 3-2 majority kept the fiscally sound spending practice that has enabled the county to build a hefty fund balance. Commissioner Grady Hawkins had made the tax cut his signature issue from the moment he was sworn in last December, arguing that it would the tax break would help average homeowners, small businesses and large industries by reducing their tax burden. Hawkins offered a highly speculative argument that the tax cut would help save or create jobs. The argument on the other side — which is supported by actual experience— is that having a $29 million fund balance has enabled the county to respond quickly when real jobs are at its doorstep, invest in property for the public at buyer's market prices and grant funding for the nonprofit agencies that fill those cracks poor people fall through.
County Manager Steve Wyatt, invited by Commissioner Tommy Thompson to weigh in on the tax cut question, did so delicately — knowing that the issue was likely to come down to a 3-2 vote either way. "It's about opportunity," he said. Three years ago, he said, the county was able to invest in a rail spur for Sierra Nevada because it had an ample fund balance to tap into.
He could have mentioned as well the $7.3 million in fund balance the commissioners was getting ready to commit for the 2014 budget. The money will pay for more sheriff's deputies and dispatchers, two new ambulances and a new ambulance crew, a training facility at BRCC, operating money and iPads for the schools, the Tuxedo park, new county rec center improvements and small but essential contributions to many nonprofits.
Hawkins argued that a fund balance higher than the state law requires (8 percent) and higher than the board's own more conservative policy (12 percent) is more than needed. But Thompson and Edney countered that it won't last long at the rate commissioners are spending — with Hawkins and Young joining their yes votes. The elected leaders did spend a lot of the reserve fund — $2.3 million more than Wyatt recommended. But in the end it left a comfortable margin — in case that really rainy day does come.
The three-vote majority best served the broader interest of the county while preserving the cautious fiscal policy that built the fund balance up to start with. The conservatives won.