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Editorial: Grafton Tax Cap

We’re tempted to dismiss the proposed tax cap in Grafton as a solution in search of a problem, but that’s far too charitable. It’s more of a nonsolution proposed to address a nonexistent problem, which makes it a truly bad idea.

It comes via a petition drive spearheaded by Jeremy Olson, an unsuccessful candidate for the New Hampshire House and a former research director for the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance, an advocacy group with, yes, libertarian leanings. Under the proposed tax cap, the town would be prohibited from increasing the total amount it collects in property taxes by more than $1. That would place a tighter straitjacket on municipal spending than most such caps because it would limit revenue rather than increases in the tax rate itself: An expansion of the town’s overall property tax base would force the town to lower its rate. If that increase in property values were driven by an influx of people to town — growth that might well require additional town services — the revenue cap would be stifling.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Grafton, a small and politically conservative town, doesn’t have a town government that could be confused with Sweden or, for that matter, Lyme. Town spending approved for the current budget nudged the tax rate up a nickel for every $1,000 of assessed valuation. A taxpayer with property assessed at $200,000 saw his or her tax bill increase by all of $10. Yes, times are tough, but 10 bucks will barely buy a six-pack of decent yuppie beer these days.

In fact, it’s the school portion of the property tax bill that claims the largest share of money paid by property owners, and it’s the school portion that’s been the most challenging to control in Grafton and the four other towns in the Mascoma Valley Regional School District.

“The school does the most damage to the town,” acknowledged Brian Fellers, chairman of the Planning Board and another supporter of the cap. (We doubt that the school does more damage than harebrained schemes like tax caps.)

But, if it’s school district spending that’s the source of whatever pain is being felt by Grafton taxpayers, why go after town government? Easy answer: It takes only 25 petition signatures to get a warrant article on the town ballot and 100 signatures to make it onto the school district ballot. Olson didn’t have time to get the 100, he told Valley News correspondent Patrick O’Grady.

This is not the sort of crusade that gives citizen activism a good name.

But let’s join the petition supporters by pretending that there really is a spending problem in Grafton town government: Still, why resort to a tax cap? Grafton is a small New England town, which is to say that taxpayers can register their unhappiness by voting out spendthrift members of the Selectboard. And if that doesn’t effectively deliver the message, voters have an option that provides more immediate relief: reject the annual budget. Not only would that nip the out-of-control spending in the bud, it would leave the Selectboard unconstrained in future years so it could adequately to respond to municipal needs, which can change quickly and significantly with the arrival of bad weather or an unexpected building problem.

All of which raises a question that tax cap advocates can try to answer at tomorrow night’s hearing: What’s wrong with democracy?