At the overtime sudden death end of the local budget season, if you live in Memphis you leave with a combined $7.78 cent tax rate – city of Memphis and county property tax rates – the highest property tax rate in the state of Tennessee.
As the tax bills are prepared for mailing any day now, there is some reason for hope in what comes next.
The hope is in the form of ongoing reforms that represent a realignment of which government does what and in turn how it carries out these duties.
The best representation of the change is in the line you didn’t have to wait in to get your car inspected starting this month as the city and county and state continue talks about emissions testing.
But the realignment should be about more than broadening emissions testing to the entire county and taking a line item of several million dollars off the city books with an inspection fee motorists will pay.
That’s not nearly the kind of change that is needed to make local governments more efficient.
The brightest hope for genuine systemic change is in Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson continuing to insist on transparent city financial moves that will make the city budget truly balanced. That isn’t the case as long as city leaders continue to use one-time money from private or public sources to pay for ongoing expenses.
And while city leaders applaud Wilson for forcing them to do the right thing, it remains disappointing that they couldn’t do the right thing for years until someone with the power to stop their borrowing for capital projects threatened to use it to force them to do it. You get no points in the leadership category for letting someone else lead.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., in a recent appearance on “Behind The Headlines,” framed the decision as a choice between austerity measures and an approach that combines some austerity with some seeding of economic development.
There is merit in what he says, as long as it goes to the same bottom line of truth in both motives as well as financial practices.
We probably wouldn’t quarrel with the combination if the seeding was more strategic and didn’t mean some kind of ongoing city office to oversee it. That is a problem even if such efforts are privately funded. They still grow a city government that remains too tied to the practice of one-time funding from year to year that pulls money from a different pot each year. Then after several years, the case for city funding becomes based on how many years the program has existed and those dependent on the program.
A local government should be able to do more than one thing at a time. It should also be able to focus on an overall goal of financial stability with funding priorities as it does.