Proposed vehicle fee tax by any other name

To new urbanists who support "living where you work," an annual $35 vehicle "fee" might seem a reasonable way to help balance the city of Beaufort's fiscal year 2013 budget.

But it is likely to seem unreasonable to those who depend on their cars and are unable to follow the live-where-you-work prescription.

Take, for example, an unemployed Northwest Quadrant resident living eight miles from the Beaufort Commerce Park, where the city hopes to locate new jobs once it owns the property.

Even those who wouldn't sweat paying the $35 should recognize the fee for what it is. The proposal might be pitched as a way to hold down property taxes, but it is a tax on property -- and a regressive one at that.

For the past several years, the city has done a good job of managing debt and limiting spending. This required difficult decisions, and for making them, the City Council and city staff deserve plaudits.

However, the fee proposal -- along with ambitious plans for the city's Redevelopment Commission, and the purchase of the commerce park -- suggests budgetary discipline is fleeting. In retrospect, it likely was a result not of lessons taught by a recession, but of political realities created by that recession, which roughly coincided with the hefty tax hike the city needed to pay for its new City Hall.

More to the point, interest rates remain low, the city has borrowing capacity, and government is revved to spend again. That's fine if there are specific revenue streams to pay for specific projects that are part of government's mandate.

So while it might be preferable to pay $555,000 upfront for the new firetruck and street sweeper the city needs, financing it with low-interest borrowing is still acceptable. The loan will be paid off, and the cost of the equipment will likely be reflected on property tax bills, the most conspicuous tally of government's cost but by no means the only tally.

The vehicle fee is a different thing altogether.

First, it is not being proposed to address a sudden proliferation of pot holes or a spike in the cost of filling them. Rather, it is a device for bringing in money because state law allows it, and the city hasn't gotten around to using it yet.

The fee also is not likely to go away, even if other revenue sources increase as the recession recedes. Government is less inclined to turn off the spigot than it is to shift old money to new uses -- sometimes for projects the marketplace has not supported.

Consider the fretting over ways to avoid taking as much as $556,680 from the city's reserve fund next year. Then consider the city's $1.85 million gamble on the commerce park. Not only does the amount eclipse next year's possible deficit, the city decided to finance the entire deal, rather than tap a $1 million fund for land purchases that could have covered more than half the cost.

Either more land buys are on the way, or the city officials think that money is more productive idling in a government account than in the hands of the taxpayers who put it there.

In that context, taking $35 a year from every vehicle owner is an audacious move.