Friday, March 30, 2012

EDITORIAL >> Special tax a donation?

The Lonoke County Quorum Court faces a dilemma every November when it’s time to decide how much residents will pay in property tax. Should the court include a voluntary collection on tax bills that allows residents to help support several charitable organizations in the county? Or should the court abide by an opinion given by the attorney general almost two decades ago that says collecting voluntary taxes for nonprofits violates the state Constitution?

It’s a tough call.

Last year, that 3-mill tax (or about $1.35 on average) collected $59,842 for 10 nonprofits, or less than $1 for each resident in Lonoke County, which has a population of 68,356. But it’s money the nonprofits count on to help do their work.

The voluntary tax also helps fight drugs and beavers, but that part of the tax is considered legal. In 2011, county taxpayers contributed $37,399.78 to those causes for a total voluntary tax collection of $97,242.

In 2011, the sheriff’s drug unit received $22,438, which is more than any other recipient. The beaver eradication program, received $14,960.84.

Among the nonprofit agencies, the Open Arms Shelter received the most support, $12,718.32 and Lonoke County Cares and Food Pantry received the least at $1,127.92.

The voluntary tax was first collected for nonprofits in 2002, many years after the opinion was handed down. But before that, some of the nonprofits were supported by the county outright, literally in the county budget.

That practice, county officials learned, was definitely against state law. But the voluntary tax is not so black and white.

An interpretation of the constitution, an opinion, even from the attorney general, is just an opinion until a judge calls it the law. And the members of the quorum court have been told the voluntary tax for nonprofits has not been tested in court.

Asked last week what he thought the quorum court should do about the tax since the most recent audit was critical of the county judge for allowing it, Lonoke County Judge Doug Erwin wouldn’t acknowledge that the county collects taxes for charitable organizations. He said the county makes it possible for tax payers to donate if they choose.

For what it’s worth, Erwin wasn’t even the county judge in 2010, the year of the most recent audit because audits run a year behind. If the collection was illegal, it had nothing to do with him.

But many on the quorum court now were on it when the tax started. This isn’t the first time the county has been written up for the tax, so there is little doubt they have known for years what the attorney general said about it. But an admonition to stop from state auditors isn’t a fine and it is clear that the quorum court has favored a slap on the wrist to telling food pantries, child advocates and the elderly that they’ll have to get by without the voluntary taxes of county residents.

The unanswered question is how they will feel about it in November. It’s good that taxpayers voluntarily give to their favorite nonprofits, but should government collect funds for them? We don’t think so.