Thursday, September 15, 2005

Finding the Fair Tax Burden for Memphis Taxpayers

In a blog last week, we mentioned that Mayor Herenton’s consolidation presentation was ignored by the news media and that the committee he appointed to study consolidation was hijacked by the town mayors and is now yet one more review of school funding.

We wrote: “Although the city mayor has now taken himself out of the picture, the committee he convened has turned its attention to school funding. If it really wants to accomplish something, it shouldn’t look at school funding in isolation. It should start at the same point Mayor Herenton did – with the emphasis on equalizing the unfair tax burden that Memphians pay for public services.”

In response to this blog, we were asked what the committee should do if it wants to address this tax issue. Our answer is that we would conduct a study on the cost of sprawl that includes the following:

-- the proportion of the county tax base, for the past 15 years to the present, that is within Memphis city limts and within the city’s annexation reserve area

-- the proportion of the county tax base that is paid by Memphis taxpayers from all residential, commercial and industrial sources

-- the amount of county tax dollars that was spent over the past 15 years on capital projects supporting suburban development in the area outside of Memphis, including money spent on roads, drainage, paving, traffic signals, parks, landfills, etc.

-- the proportion of the operating budget and capital budget of Shelby County spent in the past 15 years on expansion of the sheriff’s department to serve the suburbs, ambulance service to some towns and unincorporated Shelby County, fire services, etc., over the past 15 years

-- the proportion of the operating budget and special services such as elections, Agricultural Extension, Soil Conservation Service, Shelby County police, office buildings, information technology, etc., that is paid by Memphis taxpayers

-- the total of 50-50 city-county funded projects for the past 15 years such as The Pyramid, AutoZone Park, FedEx Forum, Memphis Cook Convention Center, Memphis/Shelby County Health Department, etc., and determine the actual overall percentage paid by Memphis taxpayers

-- examine revenues and expenditures of joint city-county agencies administered by Shelby County, such as Construction Codes Enforcement, to determine how much of the revenues are generated within Memphis and how much of the revenue is actually spent on city issues, how much was spent on general government expenses of Shelby County, and how much was spent on inspection/enforcement outside the city limits.

In setting this broader context, the committee should come to realize the disparity of Memphians’ tax burden and why smart growth will never succeed as long as city taxpayers are expected to subsidize their own neighborhoods’ abandonment.

In the end, the overriding fiscal policy goal in our community is not school funding, but equalizing the tax burden between Memphians and non-Memphians. Achieving that goal not only produces fair funding for schools, but true tax equity in Memphis and Shelby County for the first time.

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