Henry Louis Mencken, journalist and miscreant (all redundancies forgiven), observed in the first half of the last century: “Those who can’t administrate go into politics.” The assertion was unassailable then and is irrefutable now. Evidence abounds, but for present purposes, we’ll sample but a nibble, gathered from a recent Franklin County supervisors meeting.
During that session Aug. 20, the elected body’s topics of discussion included county-owned properties, which included among more than 100, 17 that are unused. A parcel west of Ferrum College, off Virginia 40, covers 82 acres and is assessed at $222,000. The county purchased the land in 1996 planning to use it for an industrial park. Twenty-three years later, the crickets sound metaphorically and literally.
That land remains undeveloped. More importantly, it remains off the tax rolls. At the current real estate tax rate of 61 cents per $100 of assessed value, the property would generate $1,354.20 in annual tax revenues. Projected over 23 years, the total would be more than $31,000. If the remaining 16 unused properties each produced half that amount over the same period, they would add more than a quarter-million dollars.
Whatever the actual figures might be, a singular point stands: Governments should leave the real estate business to the private sector. Property owned by government is not taxed. So property owned by government is, in a literal sense, worthless so long as it remains in government hands.
In private hands, real estate generates tax revenue. In public hands, real estate generates zeros. Government owns property for sensible and necessary purposes – buildings and facilities in which the work of government takes place, parks to provide amenities for the community and land for use in spurring economic growth.
That vast swath in Ferrum does not qualify, not when more than two decades have passed with no industrial park. Properties owned by Franklin County include a Sontag Road home that previously was rented but now is vacant. Why should government play the role of landlord when a private landlord would be obliged to pay taxes on the same property?
Supervisors rightly are asking questions. Ronnie Thompson, who represents the Boone District, said the industrial park that never was — and still isn’t — is a running joke. “I think we need to do something.”
This equates to having sense to get out of the rain. Of course, the county needs to do something. Precisely what is precisely as obvious: Sell!
But county supervisors seem bent on substantiating Mencken’s slight. Rather than proceed directly to the logical conclusion, supervisors told county staff to study options for six months. While that work continues, more time will pass with those properties logging zeros rather than bringing in revenue.
Some decisions elected officials must make are difficult. This is not among them. If a property is vacant and showing no potential to benefit the local economy, put it on the market. Let the private sector do the work of managing the property and government manage the tax money it generates.