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VOL. 6 | NO. 19 | Saturday, May 4, 2013

Editorial: City, County Budgets Need Sustainability

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There is always a reason, always a graph or charter that explains why something in a government budget can’t be cut.

Ask why funding for something that may be nice to have but isn’t essential can’t be used for something that is essential and you might get the analogy about the money coming from a different pocket. Or you could just get an earful of double talk.

For too long that has been the game when it becomes budget season in local government.

Time is short in the march to the end of the fiscal year on June 30. So it really isn’t the place for a long-term review of why our city and county governments spend money where they spend it and in the amounts they spend.

It does, however, seem to be the time to commit to that kind of long-term review for next budget season and to cite past long-term reviews that may or may not be relevant any longer.

Our point is not to be cynical. Our argument is for a long-term political sustainability that is too easily derailed.

There are relevant discussions underway on both sides of the Civic Center Plaza about the need to keep the respective property tax rates as low as possible and both mayors claim smaller governments over several years.

The city’s resolve and commitment to keeping capital improvement projects at $65 million a fiscal year is a break through moment from the days when the amount was much higher and the list of projects longer than the city could ever get done in a year’s time even if it had the financing.

But we need to look deeper at how both governments make their budget decisions year to year. If it is a patchwork of stopgap measures and fiscal band-aids to get to June 30, then the accomplishments are a hollow victory.

More importantly those kinds of budget and revenue fixes don’t create the fiscal stability needed to sustain a more prosperous Memphis.

Until that happens, we will never tame the double property tax rates that would be a combined $7.74 – minimum with no county tax hike for new school funding – for Memphians under the current recertified tax rate scenarios outlined by both administrations.

The combined property tax rate impact and its sticker shock remains the biggest threat to growing the kind of city and county all of us want. It is not just the amount. The danger is in the constant threats to its stability over long periods of time in a political atmosphere that rewards short attention spans.

Stop playing the same numbers games. And after July 1 when the budget books are put on the shelf or recycled, get serious about building a fiscal foundation that allows Memphians to know what to expect from their local governments over a longer period of time.

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