Opinion » Viewpoint

Blank Check?

Councilwoman Janet Hooks fights lonely battle for a "privilege tax."



It's a good thing city councilwoman Janet Hooks has a big, politically active family because she looks pretty lonely out there as the champion of a privilege tax.

Hooks, married to Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks and mother of Memphis Board of Education member Michael Hooks Jr., is fighting a grassroots battle for passage of the tax referendum in the November election. Grassroots means outgunned. Opponents include the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce, business leaders calling themselves "Coalition for a Better Memphis," The Commercial Appeal, and some City Council members.

The Chamber of Commerce has hired a public relations firm and plans to raise $100,000 to $200,000 to spend on an advertising blitz.

"What she has proposed is well-intentioned," said chamber spokesman Ken Hall. "It doesn't work practically because of vague language."

The Commercial Appeal echoed the criticism of "the fuzzy tax." The proposal would authorize the City Council to "levy and collect an additional privilege tax and/or fee on the privilege of engaging in certain vocations, occupations, callings and employment related activities within the city" and to use the money for police and fire services while making a corresponding reduction in property taxes.

"We don't want to demonize anyone," said Hall. "My great fear is that people go into the voting booth and get confused by the language. Our simple message is vote no."

Hooks' simple reply is that defeat of the referendum will leave the City Council no choice but to increase property taxes next year, with the Shelby County Commission likely to do the same.

"They [the chamber] tell us we cannot continue to raise property taxes, but we do not have an alternative," she said. "It leaves me to feel that their preference is that we do nothing. Come budget time next year, they'll tell us we will run industry out of the city if we continue to raise property taxes. It is very frustrating."

She said the language of the referendum is "enabling legislation" that will be tightened up with a percentage cap and exemptions for senior citizens and others if it passes. Based on projections from the Office of Planning and Development, a 1 percent privilege tax would raise $134.3 million a year, Hooks said. Cities that have such a tax, sometimes called an occupational or payroll tax, include Birmingham, Louisville, St. Louis, and Cincinnati.

Criticism of the proposal as fuzzy, vague and open to legal challenges is selective and somewhat unfair. Memphis business leaders and the CA have embraced expensive public projects such as the $250 million FedExForum on the basis of their potential. The Grizzlies, remember, came to town as sad sacks, minus Hubie Brown, Jerry West, and several key players. Legal challenges to the new arena were overcome. Memphis Networx has yet to turn a profit for Memphis Light, Gas and Water.

The real issue is trust or distrust of the voters and elected City Council.

"The referendum would give the council a blank check," said city councilwoman Carol Chumney, who opposes it and feels it was "mishandled."

Mayor Willie Herenton has asked the council to come up with alternative sources of revenue besides the property tax, but he is not out front on the referendum.

Without an advertising budget, the energetic Hooks is "trying to take it to the people." The fact that the referendum coincides with a presidential election is a plus in her eyes, and she hopes for a big turnout. Democrat John Kerry isn't expected to win Tennessee, but if form holds, he will rack up huge margins in inner-city precincts in Memphis. Little wonder Hall says "we don't view this as a partisan issue."

The chamber must hope so. If Kerry voters make it to the end of the ballot and vote "for" the referendum, things could get interesting. It also helps referendum proponents that only Memphis residents can vote on it, excluding many suburban Memphis bashers. Tax targets include the residents of DeSoto County, who work in Memphis. Hooks estimates that there are 28,000 of them.

In her 13th year on the City Council, Hooks is running out of patience with those who promise "next year" to come up with alternatives to raising property taxes, which the council has not done in five years. She remembers being bombarded with angry telephone calls from FedEx employees the last time a payroll tax proposal came up several years ago. She has watched her husband and her son fight against budget cuts. She waited for the chamber to "dialogue" then started the dialogue herself when, she says, no one called.

For Janet Hooks, this is next year.

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