by James A. Bacon
As Mark Twain famously said, there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Anyone can slant an argument in his favor by cherry picking statistics. I try to avoid that. As proof, I will offer some numbers regarding Henrico County government expenditures over the past decade that make my opposition to the Henrico meals tax a tad more difficult to maintain — but only a tad.
As faithful readers of the Rebellion know, I oppose the 4% meals tax that the Henrico County political establishment wants to impose upon its citizens, making its case with all manner of facts that are literally true but highly deceptive when shorn of context. It is in my partisan interest to suggest that Henrico has been less than parsimonious in its taxing and spending in order to undercut its justification for the tax. I could make my case by citing total government expenditures (which excludes, I believe, state and federal school funding) reported in the county’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for 2012:
Percentage increase: 34.4%
That sounds pretty profligate. But those numbers are misleading. The county’s population increased 13.6% over the same decade, and inflation was 24.8%. A fairer measure would be to compare county spending per capita adjusted for inflation. Those numbers look like this:
Percentage decrease: 5.2%
County officials would stand on much firmer ground citing those numbers than the phony-baloney claims that they whacked $115 million from “the budget,” which includes back-tracking on budgeted spending increases, and eliminating 646 positions from “the budget,” which includes deleting positions budgeted but never filled. (The county has a no lay-offs policy.)
Honesty compels me to acknowledge that Henrico County has cut real spending over the past decade. However, that’s not the end of the story.
While Henrico did restrain spending, that achievement has to be seen in the context of what’s been happening to the income of Henrico residents over the same period of time. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find the numbers this morning for Henrico residents specifically, but I did find them for residents of the Richmond metropolitan region. Between 2005 and 2012, regional per capita incomes declined on an inflation-adjusted basis from $32,399 to $28,943 — or 12%.
Now, one more adjustment to make sure we compare apples to apples. My source on Richmond regional incomes went back only to 2005, so we need to compare inflation-adjusted expenditure cuts and income cuts since 2005 (not 2003, as I did above).
Decline in Henrico spending: 10.8%
Decline in Richmond regional incomes: 12%
Assuming Henrico incomes fell in line with Richmond regional incomes, that means citizens retrenched more over the past eight years than the county did.
Consider also the state and federal tax increases that citizens have endured — the 2.3% medical device tax and reduced income-tax deduction for medical expenses thanks to Obamacare, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation tax hikes, and the Obama tax hikes on “millionaires and billionaires.” Then throw in the sky-rocketing cost of medical insurance and college tuition, and it’s entirely understandable that ordinary citizens in Henrico (and Chesterfield, which wants a 2% meals tax) feel besieged. The last thing they need is a tax on their catered and restaurant meals. Local governments need to find a way to make do.
Population: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, here and here.
Inflation: Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index calculator.
County expenditures: 2012 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.
Richmond per capita income: Department of Numbers