Those who read this blog know that I have been absent from the conversation for quite a while, which likely means that no one reads this space any more. Frankly, life has been too busy out here in Old Hickory to spend a lot of time on the broader issues of our city, and in many ways it’s been a slow news cycle which hasn’t lent itself to commentary.
But here we are, moving into a heated debate on the mayor’s proposed property tax increase, which passed on first reading last night in the Metro Council. That it passed should come as no surprise for the council’s procedures pretty much demand that bills must past on first reading in order to be considered in committee and be open to the possibility of amendment. Had the council failed to adopt the budget last night, the rules related to the adoption of the budget would have meant it would have automatically gone into effect and the accompanying tax increase would have been automatically happened as well. First reading passage is normal for almost all bills simply to get them into the hopper and on the table for discussion.
I confess that I am really not in a place where I can offer comment on the property tax increase. I am, after all, in the employ of a church — a non-profit entity that is exempt from property taxes. I likewise live in a church owned residence which is also exempt. This is a tax that, because of current law and my status, I don’t participate in and as such don’t really have a place at the table. (The argument about whether churches SHOULD be exempt is a different conversation but I can say that my position often puts me at odds with our church hierarchy.)
While I can’t speak to the proposed means for increasing revenue to the city coffers, I can however speak about the need to increase revenue by what ever means is at our disposal. And I, to the dismay I imagine of friends like Councilman Robert Duval, am an advocate for increasing revenue to the city at this time.
For me it is a simple equation. For the past four years at least, city departments, especially those which deal with the social safety net, have been asked to cut their budgets again and again. For the past four years, whether we like it or not, Rich Riebling and the Mayor have been balancing the budget through tricky accounting and refinancing of the city debt, a means of simply delaying the inevitable which is upon us. We have seen a needed increase in the number of police officers in recent years, but most of the funding for those positions were through the federal stimulus, for which funding is coming to an end and must be replaced by the city. We have been engaged in the theater of “fully funding” our schools only because the school board submitted predetermined numbers generated by the mayor’s office rather than fully articulating what it costs to educate our kids. There are basic needs that need to be met in our neighborhoods, and we’ve cut to the point where there isn’t much else to cut.
Of course there are those who say that they can’t support a tax increase when this administration has squandered resources on things like the Music City Center, and a rash of corporate welfare to all sorts of companies. I understand this argument and resonate with it in many ways. I was concerned about the impact of the Music City Center on basic services, and while the administration and proponents of that project will say that it comes from a different pot of money disconnected from the city’s budget, the fact is that we made a choice to direct those visitor generated taxes toward the tourism industry without allocating any toward city services. That may be a valid choice — but it’s a choice just the same — and there were many of us who believed that it was a choice that benefited the urban core at the expense of outlying neighborhoods.
More problematic is the choice by this administration to push through corporate tax breaks for businesses like HCA, Lifepoint Hospitals, and Gaylord/Dollywood. The mayor would surely say that these bring business and new taxes from employees into Davidson County, although I would dare say that the moving of Lifepoint a couple of miles down the road from Williamson to Davidson County will not lead to a single new employee and absolutely no new business or tax opportunities. Even though I am the president of an organization charged with promoting business development, I can see from that perspective that these tax breaks tend to go to a certain group of well connected insiders and are rarely open for other businesses who may in fact be as successful in creating jobs in the community. I can think of two industrial businesses in our region who chose to locate in Davidson County and have been adding workers due to increased demand without receiving a single tax incentive to locate here. I would agree that corporate welfare on the backs of middle class workers is wrong, and yet it continues to be a reality throughout the nation, not simply Nashville, and until folks are willing to rise up and actively object to these practices, it becomes difficult for any city to lead the way without hindering the business climate, and there is no political benefit to the mayor for taking on this problem on his own.
Yet, in spite of those factors, I continue to believe that we need to increase revenue to the city budget, especially in regards to restoring funding to provide an adequate and robust social safety net. While I would prefer that our corporations bear a larger burden in funding the operation of the city which provides them workers, a transportation infrastructure, and other amenities, the primary means at this point of increasing revenue is through either increasing sales taxes (something that I think we’ve maxed out according to state law) or increasing property taxes. There aren’t a whole lot of other options.
Is there continued waste in government? Absolutely, but I remain unconvinced that it is any more significant that the extravagance that occurs in the private sector. When I look at executive salaries and perks, or walk into a Taj Mahal of corporate extravagance in a headquarters building, I can see all sorts of ways that executives are not great stewards of the shareholders money. It is, I believe, a myth that suggests that corporations are more efficient than government, for large organizations of ANY type, be it government offices or corporate headquarters, are subject to comparable levels of bureaucratic muck. Yes, there is waste in government, but recent years of cutting, cutting, and more cutting have made it significantly less, and more cuts will, as the mayor has said, cut into the muscle rather than trimming fat.
Again, I am not advocating for a property tax increase, but simply wish to acknowledge that from the easy chair it sure seems like it’s way past time to look at increasing revenue. If someone has a means for cutting waste without cutting essential services, then I would be very open to hearing about that plan.