Opinion » Viewpoint

A Better Approach

Voting yes on the county sales tax proposal would allow us to reduce property tax burden.

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On ballot referendum Number One: You, the citizen, are being asked to raise the county sales tax by one-half percent. Your first instinct is going to be something along the lines of "hell, no!"

I understand this reaction, but I ask you to look deeper into the issue and move past your first instinct. Made in a vacuum, everyone would choose no. But this decision isn't happening in a vacuum, and you must consider what a yes vote means in regards to your quality of life as well as what a no vote means to your bottom line. 

It goes without saying that the Unified School Board must pursue reforms that eliminate waste or inefficient uses of our education dollars, but reform cannot and does not exist only on the cut side of the ledger.

The fact is that the proceeds generated by the sales tax on the county side would actually facilitate the stringent cost-efficient reforms recommended by the Transition Planning Commission while enabling the school board, for the first time, to offer universal pre-K to all children in our county, something badly needed.

From the city's point of view, the split we receive from a countywide sales tax would also allow us to improve areas of core service and need in our community. Just as was the case when we were considering a municipal-only sales tax increase, your city government is committed to using these funds in three distinct ways.

The first is to improve our community centers and libraries. As Mayor Wharton has noted many times, education is more than schools and children, it is a lifelong pursuit. Through such improvements as these, Memphians will be able to continue to educate themselves.

Secondly, we will be better able to address the persistent problem of blight in our city. By accelerating our blight-abatement programs, not only do we raise the quality of life for so many of our citizens, we protect our tax rate and help eliminate future needs for property tax increases.

Finally, on the subject of property taxes, if the countywide sales tax initiative passes, we will be able to lower your property taxes, something that had also been envisioned under the previous city-only proposal. 

We have spent all summer being outraged that a plane ticket from Memphis costs twice what the same plane ticket from Nashville costs. This imbalance is also true of our property tax rate, which is twice that of Nashville and other peer cities. The damage to us from that imbalance continues to be immense. 

By approving the sales tax increase we will be bringing our sales tax rate in line with where the majority of counties in Tennessee already are — not twice as high, as is the case with our current level of property taxes, but, rather, just the same. 

It also must be said that if the sales tax proposal fails, the burden of paying the freight falls entirely on those of us who live or own property here. A sales tax would spread the burden, capturing revenue from all those who choose to work and play in Memphis and Shelby County but live outside the limits of our metropolitan area.

Allow me to ask a few questions that are critical in making this decision. If the sales tax fails, what do you think will happen next? Not what you want to happen next, but what you think will happen next? 

What if local legislative bodies — the city council and the county commission — have to institute substantial layoffs, which by necessity would include police and fire employees? 

Is that something you want? And, if this sales tax referendum fails, are you prepared for that already burdensome and uncompetitive property tax of ours to become even more when both county and city government are forced to approve an increase?

I hope you understand how the money from this relatively modest sales tax increase would be spent and get a sense, too, of how the alternative — increasing the property tax — would worsen an already competitive disadvantage.

It is my hope that you have moved beyond the instinctive "hell, no!" 

On November 6th, the answer is up to you.

Shea Flinn is a member of the Memphis City Council and the immediate past chairman of the budget committee.

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