Robbing Peter?

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By Ben Carlson

Anyone who missed Monday morning's meeting of the Anderson County Fiscal Court missed an exceptional lesson in how some elected officials view the money they are given to operate.

Throughout a lengthy discussion on whether the Cooperative Extension District should be able to levee its own taxes, we heard comment after comment from the judge-executive and magistrates as they discussed "their" money and "their budget." Not once did they mention the very people who are forced to give them "their" money: the taxpayers.

Instead, the discussion devolved into a ridiculous game of figuring out how best to rob Peter to pay Paul.

Here's how: While discussing how much "rent" to charge the Extension for using the building that was built for it in the park, the court debated the average square-foot cost to rent "commercial" real estate. Magistrate John Wayne Conway took the low-ball approach and said he would be content with $11 a square foot, netting the county about $30,000 after it paid the building's utilities, on top of the $100,000 the county would save by allowing the Extension to set its own tax rate.

(Left to his own devices, it's doubtful that Conway would even want to charge rent or utilities - which would make the most sense - but only made that suggestion as part of his effort to get the agency out from under the county's thumb.)

Judge-Executive Steve Cornish said $11 per square foot is "cheap." He said commercial real estate in Lawrenceburg averages $20 per square foot, quickly adding that he wasn't suggesting that's how much the court should charge.

Conway countered that the Extension isn't "commercial," and on they went.

Next came the debate over whether the rent should include utilities, as magistrates debated how much of the electric bill the Extension should pay being that it only uses part of the building, etc.

While we certainly appreciate the court's fiscal watch-dog display, the bottom line is that it doesn't really matter how much rent is charged or who pays the utilities because the money is all coming from the same place: the taxpayers!

Whether the court or Extension taxes us to pay the electric bill makes no difference. The same amount of tax dollars will be used to pay the bill, regardless who writes the check.

Whether the court charges $1 per square foot or $100 per square foot makes no difference, either. Taxpayers are already paying the debt on the building, helping cover the costs for those who perform their duties in that building and paying the bills associated with that building. Giving the Extension tax dollars only to have it turn around and give that money to the court is an exercise in futility and amounts to nothing more than a shell game.

That would be akin to parents giving their children an allowance, only to collect it at the end of each month in the form of rent. Or sneaking into the bank, furtively transferring $1,000 from your savings to your checking account and thinking you now have more money to spend.

The Extension is a terrific organization which provides services to an estimated 11,000 people each year. That's a whole lot of bang for very little buck, folks.

It makes perfect sense to let that agency levee its own taxes, and we hope that the court eventually allows it to do so.

But rather than trying to figure out how to come out of this debate with more tax dollars in "their" account, we'd prefer our elected officials concern themselves with how this idea will best benefit those who give them "their" money to begin with.