RALEIGH — Asheville‘s city government revenue grew 23 percent faster than population and inflation growth would have predicted from 2002 to 2007. A family of four would have needed an extra $1,578 just to pay for that growth, according to a new John Locke Foundation Policy Report.
That growth rate helped Asheville rank No. 5 among the state’s 30 largest cities. Those cities averaged 10 percent revenue growth above the combined rate of inflation and population growth.
Among county governments, three western counties ranked among the state’s top six in revenue growth rate from 2002 to 2007, adjusting for inflation and population growth. Clay ranked No. 3 with 39 percent revenue growth, while McDowell ranked No. 4 (39 percent), and Cherokee ranked No. 6 (35 percent.)
In contrast, Swain County’s 5 percent revenue growth rate ranked No. 89 out of 98 counties included in the report. Burke‘s 2 percent revenue growth ranked No. 94.
The average county increased revenues by 13 percent beyond the rate of inflation and population growth from 2002 to 2007. For other area counties, Polk ranked No. 11 (30 percent revenue growth beyond inflation plus population); Jackson, No. 14 (29 percent); Haywood, No. 17 (28 percent); Buncombe, No. 19 (27 percent); Macon, No. 33 (20 percent); Henderson, No. 34 (19 percent); Rutherford, No. 38 (18 percent); Madison, No. 51 (15 percent); Transylvania, No. 52 (15 percent); Yancey, No. 68 (11 percent); and Mitchell, No. 86 (6 percent). Graham County was one of two counties unranked because of incomplete data.
“The current economic recession has left many North Carolina cities and counties strapped for money,” said report co-author Joseph Coletti, JLF Fiscal Policy Analyst. “As economic activity declines, sales taxes, fees, and other revenue sources decline.”
“Many city councils and county commissions are considering ways to increase taxes, a very bad idea during the recession,” added co-author Dr. Michael Sanera, JLF Research Director and Local Government Analyst. “Others are asking the federal government to bail them out. Our report shows that many North Carolina cities and counties have only themselves to blame.”
Before the recession, these local governments spent money faster than population growth and inflation would warrant, Sanera said. “Instead of cutting taxes, they started or expanded unnecessary or low-priority projects.”
Coletti and Sanera illustrate growth in local government spending by comparing revenue in the 2002 and 2007 budget years. For the state’s 30 largest cities and for all 98 counties that had data available, the analysts adjusted the data for inflation rates and population growth. The result is a graph for each city and county with lines representing both real government growth and growth consistent with the limits of inflation and population increases.
“We label the second line the ‘growth pays for itself’ line because even in fast-growing counties, government, if maintained at this level, would be receiving revenues with the same purchasing power per capita in 2007 as in 2002,” Coletti said. “We found that 96 of 98 counties and 24 of the 30 largest cities collected more revenue than would have been necessary to keep up with increases in inflation and population.”
Nine of the 30 largest cities saw their revenues grow at least 20 percent beyond the “growth pays for itself” line. Mooresville, Burlington, Thomasville, Jacksonville, and Asheville ranked highest on the list. On the other hand, five cities compiled growth rates smaller than inflation plus population growth: Wilmington, Statesville, Hickory, Monroe, and Fayetteville. Coletti and Sanera cautioned that Fayetteville’s revenue growth rate is affected substantially by its annexation of 42,000 people in September 2005.
Thirty-three counties also compiled revenue growth rates of at least 20 percent, after adjusting for inflation and population growth. Union, Watauga, Clay, McDowell, and Onslow topped the list. In contrast, Durham and Randolph counties had growth rates of just 1 percent beyond the inflation plus population threshold. Davidson and Martin had growth rates smaller than inflation plus population.
Looking at the growth of local government revenues adjusted for inflation and population informs citizens and allows them to hold government officials accountable for their taxing and spending decisions, Sanera said. “Some might ask, ‘Why should county revenues grow faster than population and inflation?’ What do citizens get for the extra money they pay?'”
The report could generate other questions, Sanera said. “Do those revenues pay for essential services such as public safety or for services for mostly upper-income residents, such as golf courses and equestrian centers?” he asked. “Are new schools being built in the most cost-effective manner, or do new buildings contain frills unrelated to providing quality education? Are tax increases necessary, or should counties and cities spend the money they have more efficiently and effectively?”
At a fundamental level, democracy means that citizens control their governments, Coletti said. “Control is impossible without access to information on what local governments are doing,” he said. “This report provides some of that information. Cities and counties must do a better job at making their operations, budgets, contracts, and programs more transparent. Citizens should not have to be CPAs to understand their government’s financial records.”
Joseph Coletti and Michael Sanera’s Regional Brief, “City and County Budget Crises: When in a hole, first stop digging,” is available at the JLF Web site. For more information, please contact Sanera at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].