So many of the arguments during budget season here in River City go to the issue of our supposedly horrendous tax rate. Whether it's the County Commission or the City Council, some member who is about to wield the meat ax on the public purse is sure to say it's necessary to keep the city/county (pick one) from having a tax rate that is the highest in Tennessee or the second highest in the Western World or just too damn high. It's enough to put old Draco to shame.
As we write these words, the City Council is about to consider trashing its sanitation system and taking first responders out of service, while the County Commission has already cast preliminary votes for several such "economies," the most egregious of which was a vote to slash funding for the Office of Early Childhood and Youth, though members had been warned that to do so would endanger roughly $6 million in federal funding that was leveraged on the $450,000 commissioners voted to cut. (See also here)
Between them, the City Council and County Commission are going after as many long-established quality-of-life items as they can find to purge or defund — public golf courses, the local music commission, public libraries. It's no exaggeration to say that our public officials — many or maybe most of them — have panicked themselves into a fire-sale mode. And when we say fire sale, we mean just that. Excising some 111 fire department jobs, as one councilman and the fire department director himself have proposed, would apparently require the sale of some existing department vehicles as surplus items.
Give Commissioner Terry Roland this: The man from Millington may be something of a madcap, guilty, as his commission antagonist Walter Bailey says, of "grandstanding" in his proposal to cut 10 percent off the salaries of administration appointees earning more than $100,000 a year. But Roland's rationale for that action, adopted by his fellow commissioners on Monday, makes at least a modicum of sense. So long as ranking county officials were prepared to jettison a certain number of their own employees, "people who make from $29,000 to $35,000," Roland said, "you ought to be willing to back it up with a cut yourself."
Bailey himself, in waging a solitary struggle on Monday on behalf of keeping in the county budget a modest 2 percent pay increase for county employees, pointed out that any resultant bump in the county tax rate would be almost imperceptible, a matter of $7, he estimated, for the median householder.
Ah yes, Memphians, Shelby Countians. That danged tax rate, again. To get or retain some modest amenities in our public life, we would have to pay a little more. Never mind that to live in such recognized magnet parts of the country as New York, San Francisco, LA, Phoenix, and Miami, we'd have to pay a lot more — if not in the tax rate per se then by sheer cost-of-living measures.
Our lawmakers seem to have forgotten that cardinal common-sense rule: You get what you pay for. In being so penny-wise, they are making themselves — and us —look pound-foolish.