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Fee faux outrage 

Let me say a word in support of Maggie Brooks.

I didn't vote for her for Congress or for county executive, and this newspaper didn't endorse her for either one. But I've been amused at Monroe County Democrats' piling on about her latest budget and the fees snuggled away inside it.

By the time you read this, the Republican-dominated County Legislature will probably have approved the budget. Once again, Brooks isn't raising the property-tax rate. But she is increasing some fees: the "chargebacks" that help finance Monroe Community College, for instance. And she's charging suburbanites a fee for snowplowing. The Dems hooted, insisting that the fees are really taxes by another name.

Sure they are. But the Dems' outrage seems a bit faux to me. It isn't Brooks' fault that she resorts to this sleight of hand. She's been forced into it – by all of us taxpayers.

And I'd bet that the Dems would do the same thing if they were in charge. Politicians at every level of government are scared witless to raise taxes. So as expenses go up – for many legitimate reasons – politicians look for ways to pay for them without getting run out of town.

Thus the fees and other shenanigans.

I called my own county legislator, Paul Haney, a Democrat, and asked him if he didn't think the county needed to raise more revenue. His answer: Yes.

But when the Dems spoke out after Brooks released her budget, there was not a word of understanding; no sympathy whatsoever.

Haney agrees that Dems wouldn't be any more likely to raise taxes forthrightly than the Republicans – because voters think taxes are un-American. "Unfortunately," said Haney, "the political discourse over the last 10 years has drilled into their heads that we don't need additional revenue in government. How you reverse that I don't know. The first 10, 20, 50 politicians who stand up and say it are gonna be executed."

Rational voters understand the need for more taxes. Government shouldn't spend our money foolishly, but when costs go up, revenue often must, too.

Nationally, of course, political leaders are in a big hoohah over taxes, with conservatives leading the charge. We heard little conservatism, though, when George Bush took us into war, didn't raise taxes to pay for it, and actually set about reducing them.

There's more than one kind of conservatism, of course. A conservatism that believes in paying for what you buy is different from a conservatism that believes the less fortunate could get jobs and join the ranks of the well-to-do if they'd just buck up. To that second type of conservatism, starving the social welfare programs makes perfect sense.

Here at home, though, something else helps drives the spending decisions: county officials simply don't have much wiggle room. A huge amount of the county's money goes to social services. That's simply fact. Also fact: county officials don't control a lot of what they spend. Other levels of government are in control. Maggie Brooks isn't kidding when she says that we have a lot of unfunded mandates – programs and services that the state, for instance, says we have to provide but doesn't fund, or doesn't fully fund.

So Brooks has to find a way to balance the budget by scrutinizing what's left. She can cut some of those things, or she can get taxpayers to give the county more money.

So I have a proposal for the Dems: Fess up on this. And see if you can't find a few Republicans who agree with you that more revenue is needed. Then go out together and explain why.

Explain what programs the county funds – and why we need those programs. Talk about things like education at Monroe Community College, child care for low-income workers, housing for the poor, snowplowing, the arts. Explain that they are a community investment – in quality of life and in the future.

I'd bet many local taxpayers would understand. And maybe you could start a trend. (Hope springs eternal.)

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