By Joe Kelly
When the housing industry collapsed in 2008, the adverse effects were felt in Pickens by spring 2009. Gone were waves of construction workers. Trucks no longer delivered building materials. Out of town home buyers vanished. Empty chairs greeted worried restaurant owners.
Concrete plants, building supply houses and other local businesses saw precipitous declines in store traffic and sales. Banking was paralyzed. Two local banks have since closed their doors. Before 2009 ended property values plunged 30 percent and haven’t recovered. Layoffs engulfed the private sector. The downturn was steep, abrupt and widespread.
In the intervening five years it’s gotten worse. One-third of the buildings in Jasper’s downtown district are vacant. Newer commercial developments along 515 and elsewhere in the county are similarly distressed. Businesses familiar to the community for years have evaporated. Many of those that remain have downsized. Some are barely holding on.
New startups seem to close before the paint dries on the signage announcing their arrival. Many private sector workers have seen incomes disappear. Careers have ended. Part time work at 20 percent of previous take home is the new normal.
Personal and business credit has been destroyed. Foreclosures have been pouring through the Pickens Progress unabated for five years.
Whether starter homes, tiny subdivisions or some of our wealthiest land owners, no segment has been spared. Fortunes have been ruined, lives and marriages torn apart under the strain, families displaced. Everyone knows of a foreclosed property in their neighborhood. Land is offered at 1980s pricing. No one is buying. This isn’t a recession. It’s a depression. No one in the private sector has escaped unaffected.
Government, however, hasn’t participated. Since the 1960s government has raised two generations of its own members to feel that their careers are entitlements. Private sector pay levels can decline (median private sector income is down $2000 nationally since 2010) and its jobs can evaporate but government positions and pay levels are unassailable.
Tax producers (private sector) can suffer but tax consumers (government) cannot. That view is going to change. There is nothing sacred about government.
Elected officials need to come to these meetings prepared to cut spending systemwide by 20 percent. Government will participate in this downturn. Any successful business owner who has survived at least one economic down cycle can reduce government expenditures by 20 percent without breaking a sweat. There’s at least that much inefficiency in government.
Nowhere is governmental arrogance more tangibly evident than in our property tax system. Despite all the hardships enumerated in this piece, assessed values in the county remain at 2008 levels, and net millage rates have increased three times since that year. This can’t pass a reality check. To paraphrase Disraeli, “there are lies, damned lies and government statistics.”
The result has been that government quietly pocketed an unconscionable 30 percent property tax increase in each of the past five years. That is property theft. Nothing in government’s judgement supported lowering assessments during this timeframe. In the real world we know that this isn’t true.
Anyone who has refinanced since 2008 has written proof of the sharp decline in values. It’s as if government is posing the question raised by the late sage, Groucho Marx. “Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?” Officials need to prepare plans to reduce property taxes by 30 percent for the next five years in order to return monies wrongly confiscated under false pretenses.
Absent resistance, government will always put its own best interests ahead of the taxpayers’. The past five years are proof of that. Taxpayers need to attend these sessions if we are to make government live within our means. We will have less government and we will have less cost of government but only if we make our voices and concerns known at these budget meetings. We own government. Department by department, we need to decide how much of our government we want to employ.
[Following a corporate career, Joe Kelly started his own company, designing and building homes for more than 20 years. A six term past president of the Pickens County Builders Association he has lived in Pickens County, which he considers the center of the universe, for 12 years. He is now enjoying retirement.]