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Taxpayers were unwitting Santas in spending spree

RALEIGH — New Hanover County government found lots of Christmas goodies under the tree this year.

The county’s presents included 23 $1,000 chairs, a $247,600 generator for a school, 21 desktop computers at $2,000 a pop, 97 bulletproof and other types of vests at about $1,000 each and nearly $1.5 million for various radio equipment. In all, the holiday spending totaled $2.4 million.

Not surprisingly, the taxpayer played the role of Santa, only no cries of “ho ho ho!”  accompanied the giving spree. Most taxpayers in the coastal county probably weren’t aware that, by paying those hidden taxes on their telephone bill, they would be guaranteeing an especially generous round of presents.

In fairness to New Hanover County elected officials and their hired guns in county government, I suspect that some similar end-of-the year spending sprees went on in other parts of the state. Local media, though, did a fine job detailing the spending there.

Still, it’s interesting hearing a local emergency management official speak of paying for county government goods “without having to dip into our local taxpayer-generated funds.” Transparent property taxes are apparently taxpayer-generated funds. Unnoticed 60-cent-per-line, per-month telephone taxes apparently are not.

If taxpayers played unwitting Santas, North Carolina legislators took on the role of knowing elves.

Before last July, state law prohibited counties from spending the money in this fashion.

The original tax, added to telephone bills two decades ago, was for a one-time purpose: to add the communications equipment needed for an emergency dispatcher to immediately know the location of a call when anyone dials 911. Counties and local emergency management systems also used the money for road mapping and rural road addressing, all with an eye on improving emergency response times.

Few would argue that the enhanced 911 system hasn’t been a success story.

But, for years, local governments have been chafing to spend the money on bright, shiny things outside of the parameters of the law.

A few years back, state legislators agreed to cap the tax, which had been set at the local level.

Last year, lawmakers took an opposite turn. They agreed to expand the uses of the money while giving local governments a one-time shot at spending half of any reserves built up on any public need they could fancy.

An important lesson in this episode of hidden taxing and spending is how party and political ideology played little or no role.

Not a single vote was cast opposing the expanded uses of the money in either the state House or Senate. Over the years, Democratic and Republican legislators sponsored unsuccessful bills that would have allowed their counties to put the money to other uses.

Obviously, legislators of all political stripes listen to the local government officials back in the home district. They become even better listeners when no one is raising a ruckus in opposition.

And who raises a ruckus about a 60-cent mystery charge on a $100 phone bill?

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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