Even the most evasively inclined local public officials have now come to accept that new streams of revenue for government have to be found -- and not at the further expense of local homeowners, who have had to hoist the property-tax burden to the exclusion of other remedies. It's been a continuing scandal in local government. Forget John Ford's publicly subsidized diaper bill, forget this or that City Council member's cell-phone excesses, forget even the free run certain developers have historically enjoyed with local public bodies. The property tax is the big shakedown, the continuing shame.
All the more reason why the Shelby County Commission is to be commended for its unanimous action last month in passing on for the consideration of the General Assembly a proposal to assess a real estate transfer tax. Long feared and successfully resisted by the local real estate community, that proposal, initiated by Mayor A C Wharton, was one of several measures proposed by the mayor or by individual commissioners in an effort to break with the unproductive past. Others included an impact fee on developers and a payroll tax.
No one needs to be reminded that public sentiment against taxes is at an all-time high. One need only reflect on the hue and cry that rose up against the prospect of a state income tax during the second term of former Governor Don Sundquist or on the public outrage that has come about in the wake of Memphis mayor Willie Herenton's recent public admissions of a revenue shortfall and his floating of a property-tax hike. Taken superficially, the current public mood would seem to be a revulsion against government itself. But, as we have often seen, once the scalpels are out and public services start to be trimmed, second thoughts quickly set in. Hence, the second opinion by the County Commission on a proposal to which it had first given mixed reviews.
Once they are sure that they are being treated fairly, that they are being governed efficiently, and that they are getting fair value for their dollar, voters do not mind being taxpayers. (They may even countenance the kind of revenue initiative -- a cigarette-tax proposal made by state senator Steve Cohen -- that could shore up currently threatened public institutions like TennCare.)
Besides the open-minded examination of revenue sources other than the property tax, we also want to encourage a concomitant form of relief for ordinary property holders. We regard favorably state senator Mark Norris' proposed constitutional amendment to allow local governments to freeze property-tax levels for seniors once they reach retirement age. And we welcome also a proposal sponsored by several Shelby County legislators that would grant a property-tax freeze to Shelby County seniors who have been property owners for at least 20 years.
The latter proposal shortcuts the constitutional-amendment process, and, having already received a favorable vote from the Legislature, needs only to be approved by a two-thirds majority of the County Commission. In the same spirit in which the commission approved revenue alternatives last month, we urge them to act upon this proposal as well.