Norbert Soltwedel opinion column: Questions for Shumway Fire District about taxes

Real estate taxes are becoming quite a burden for farmers, especially in light of the lower crop prices and very difficult spring planting season. Farmland assessments are based on formulae which has caused the assessed value of an acre of typical Effingham County cropland to increase by 106.5% from 2014 to 2018. Values will rise 17% for 2019 and another 16% for 2020. Given typical tax rates of 6.7 %, real estate taxes have increased by $5.90/ acre between 2014 and 2018. Farmland taxes will increase another $4/acre in the next two years.

Tax rates are the result of the levy or budgets set by the various taxing bodies. These units of government can increase their levy by 5% each year without a Truth in Taxation hearing. This is the same as giving yourself a 5% increase in income which very few people have been able to do. Those bodies with a high and growing assessed value have been able to increase their spending year after year. It appears to be an attitude of “how much will our 5% increase provide and now what do we spend this money for?" There is far too little emphasis on being responsible to the taxpayers by developing a budget of essential needs. All of us would love to raise our income by 5% and find ways to spend the money but that is not how a household or business must operate.

The result in my opinion has been excessive spending of other people’s money. Take the Shumway Fire Department as an example. The 2014 levy was $276,390; this levy has grown to $401,130 in 2018; a 45% increase in just four years. This included a 32% increase in 2015. Is this excessive spending? It is by comparison with other districts in the area. Shumway spends $102.62 for each person in the District compared to $50.42 for Watson, $71.38 for Teutopolis, and $37.30 for Altamont. If we look at cost per square mile of district, Shumway spends $15.72, Watson $4.09, Teutopolis $8.30, and Altamont $2.52. Looking at cost per building site, Shumway spends $203.21, Watson $127.86, Teutopolis $180.48, and Altamont $85.99. The data for this analysis was provided by the Effingham County Clerk and GIS Departments.

The Shumway Fire District will hold its public hearing on the budget July 13. They are seeking another 5% increase. Is this increase necessary to maintain services or just what is possible? I suggest that a taxing body should be as fiscally conservative as their constituents. Just because you can is not a sufficient reason to levy a 5% increase each year. I don’t want any of my comments to reflect on the dedication of our volunteers. We appreciate their service. These comments are intended to apply to all local tax entities and to point out the need for taxpayers to get involved in the budgeting and levy process.

We all criticize Springfield and Chicago for being tax and spend governments, but it appears to me that it starts right here in Effingham County. We still control our local governments and it is our duty to speak up and let the elected officials know that we are watching and expecting responsible service from them.

I hope to see those who care at the July 13 budget hearing. Let’s ask questions as to why the costs are so much higher than surrounding fire departments. Let’s ask how the budget was determined, how it relates to local needs and whether it is really necessary in light of the burden that property taxes are placing on property owners.

Norbert Soltwedel