March 29, 2010

RALEIGH — Charlotte continues to top the list of larger cities with the highest local government costs per person in North Carolina, according to a new John Locke Foundation report. Nearby Mooresville jumps to No. 2 on the latest statewide list.

Click here to view and here to listen to Joseph Coletti discussing this report.

Charlotte’s local taxes and fees totaled $2,587 per resident for the 2008 budget year. That total helps the state’s largest city rank No. 1 on the tax-burden list for the ninth straight year. Its per-person local government cost total is more than $300 higher than any other large city in the Tar Heel state, according to the report.

Mooresville ($2,286) leaps four spots in the latest rankings to take the No. 2 spot. Asheville, Chapel Hill, and Wilmington rounded out the top five in the rankings of combined city and county costs per person.

The list compared 32 ranked municipalities with at least 25,000 residents. Jacksonville, Indian Trail (No. 31 at $1,235 per person), Thomasville, Fayetteville, and Goldsboro ranked lowest among the larger cities. Kannapolis ($1,527) ranked No. 27. Among other area cities, Huntersville ($1,949) ranked No. 12, Monroe ($1,915) No. 13, Matthews ($1,881) No. 14, Concord ($1,870) No. 15, Salisbury ($1,794) No. 17, Statesville ($1,762) No. 19, and Gastonia ($1,630) No. 22.

Among 87 ranked medium-sized municipalities, several Charlotte-area communities ended up above the state median in local government costs, including Cornelius ($2,423), Pineville ($2,281), and Davidson ($2,053). Those with tax and fee burdens closer to the median were Mint Hill ($1,732), Harrisburg ($1,730), Lincolnton ($1,670), Belmont ($1,634), Newton ($1,603), Albemarle ($1,563), Cherryville ($1,515), and Stallings ($1,418). Bessemer City ($1,397), Wadesboro ($1,343), Weddington ($1,100), and Unionville ($1,050) had costs significantly below the median. Mount Holly is unranked for 2008 because of incomplete data.

Mecklenburg County (5.91 percent) had the state’s 10th highest rate of taxes and fees as a share of income. Cabarrus (5.36 percent) ranked No. 19. Most of the rest of the area’s counties had rates closer to the state median. Catawba (5.10 percent), Iredell (5.03 percent), Union (4.91 percent), Anson (4.90 percent), and Gaston (4.89 percent) all had rates higher than the median rate of 4.71 percent. Rowan (4.58 percent), Lincoln (4.47 percent), Stanly (4.43 percent) had lower rates.

By The Numbers: What Government Costs in North Carolina Cities and Counties FY 2008 is the 12th such report published by the John Locke Foundation. Lowrey used the most recent data available from the State Treasurer, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Bureau of Economic Analysis to construct rankings of local government cost on a per-person basis. For counties, he also constructed rankings on a share-of-income basis.

“The typical resident of the median county in North Carolina paid $1,330 in taxes and fees to county and municipal governments,” said report author Michael Lowrey, a John Locke Foundation policy analyst. “The good news is that total is down from the inflation-adjusted figure of $1,355 for the 2007 budget year. The bad news is that a price spike early in the 2008 calendar year bears some responsibility for the decrease. Next year’s report is bound to show an increase in local tax burden as 2009 and 2008 figures are compared on an inflation-adjusted basis.”

The average resident in the median county forked over 4.71 percent of personal income to local government in 2008, but Lowrey says the average North Carolinian actually fares worse. “The average North Carolinian actually pays a higher percentage, since many of the state’s larger counties have above-average local tax and fee burdens. When this is factored in, a state average would amount to 4.93 percent of personal income.”

Lowrey made no changes in this year’s analysis, but he warned of a growing problem that can skew data. More than two dozen communities missed state deadlines to file their State Treasurer’s Annual Financial Information Report.

“As of February, Graham and Hoke counties and 29 municipalities had failed to submit audited financial statements to the state as required,” Lowrey said. “Without those reports, By The Numbers cannot include local tax burdens for those communities. Complete reporting would result in a somewhat higher combined county municipal median tax burden.”

Lowrey also repeated his warning against comparing the relatively high per-capita tax numbers in resort communities to those in other N.C. cities. Communities with larger numbers of second homes and resorts — combined with small year-round populations — will see larger per-capita tax burden figures, he said.

Among the 10 most populous counties, New Hanover (6.10 percent), Mecklenburg (5.91 percent), Durham (5.85 percent), Guilford (5.42 percent), and Buncombe (5.28 percent) ranked among the top 25 N.C. counties in average cost of local government. Union (4.91 percent), Gaston (4.89 percent), Forsyth (4.81 percent), and Wake (4.70 percent) ranked near the middle of the pack. Cumberland (3.83 percent) ranked among the 25 N.C. counties with the lowest tax burdens.

North Carolina collected $19 billion in state tax and fee revenues from July 1, 2007, to June 30, 2008. That’s 6.2 percent of state residents’ personal income. Local governments collected an additional $15.1 billion in property, sales, and other taxes and fees. That’s another 4.9 percent of personal income.

“Combined, they represent a state and local tax and fee burden of about 11.1 percent,” Lowrey said. “Federal collections raise the total tax burden on North Carolinians to approximately 30.6 percent of personal income, on average.”

Property taxes alone consumed 2.29 percent of personal income in the 2008 budget year, or about $650 per person. The range was $1,919 per person in Dare County to $345 per person in Swain County.

“Cities and counties often pay the costs of mandates from the state and federal governments, but many local governments also create their own fiscal problems through overspending,” said Joseph Coletti, JLF Director of Health Care and Fiscal Policy Studies. “While inflation and some communities’ failure to report data this year skew the results, we know that the long-term trends show that the cost of local government is rising in North Carolina.”

Lowrey and Coletti stress that a high cost-of-government ranking in the By The Numbers report does not equal a judgment that a city or county is governed poorly.

By The Numbers is a tool that represents factual data only, without editorial comment or bias,” Coletti said. “The best way to compare your city or county to others is to find municipalities or counties of similar size and demographics.”

“This report helps taxpayers evaluate whether the services they receive from local government merit what they are paying for them,” he added. “We hope taxpayers will continue to ask about the proper role of local government and its relationship to the state. It’s important to keep these discussions alive and to ensure our local leaders remain accountable to taxpayers.”

The John Locke Foundation Policy Report, “By The Numbers: What Government Costs in North Carolina Cities and Counties FY 2008,” is available at the JLF Web site. For more information, please contact Joseph Coletti at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. Or contact Michael Lowrey at (704) 569-4269 or [email protected].To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].