Three members of the Shelby County Commission cast votes Monday for a proposal that may be good politics but makes for unsound public policy. This initiative — for a five-cent across-the-board reduction in the county property tax — came from Wyatt Bunker, who represents the county's suburban and rural edge and its ideologically conservative edge, as well.
According to Bunker, the proposal, if enacted, would have cut $8 million out of county revenues for the next fiscal year — although the commissioner maintains that such a cut would, sooner or later, raise revenues. Right. The same logic pursued by the relentlessly tax-cutting Bush administration has driven the national deficit to new historical heights.
Various of Bunker's commission colleagues expressed exasperation with the proposal, especially since A) it came just after a tense debate concerning the commission's need to divert wheel-tax money originally earmarked as operating funds for the schools into the county's general fund, where it can be tapped for future capital improvements, and B) it followed weeks of a painstaking budgetary process, now concluded, in which every stray corner of county government was scrutinized for real or potential waste.
Yet, two other commissioners, fellow suburbanite George Flinn and Chairman Joe Ford of Memphis' inner city, joined with Bunker in voting for the proposal which, had it passed, would have thrown county government back to square one in its financial planning for the next cycle.
What gives? Well, the legitimate needs of the taxpayers would have been first. As several commissioners pointed out, the needs of the schools would have come asunder, closely followed by law enforcement. It made a certain political sense for Bunker and Flinn to vote the way they did, since they represent (or believe they represent) constituents who favor tax cuts at all costs. But what was Chairman Ford, who normally balances policy and service needs with the legitimate requirements of fiscal solvency, thinking?
Ford, who must have known the discussion and the vote were pro forma, urged Bunker to reintroduce the proposal next year. Fair enough. At least that will give the commission enough lead time to reorganize fiscal priorities so as to facilitate such an across-the-board cut, if that's what they regard as needful. Given Governor Bredesen's success in imposing drastic cuts when he took office in 2003, we're not saying the idea of an across-the-board cut is impossible. But the last time we looked, the governor was taking some criticism of policy changes (his gutting of TennCare, for example) that we regard as legitimate.
Property owners are surely entitled to relief and deserve consideration of the sort just awarded in Nashville, where state senator Mark Norris and state representative John DeBerry won passage of legislation authorizing the state's local governments to enact limited tax freezes for seniors.
Those eligible in Shelby County are homeowners at least 65 years old with incomes not exceeding $31,549. That amounts to 59 percent of the county's senior households and is consistent with Shelby County's unique need for balance between revenues and services. When it can, the commission should act upon the new law. Anything more drastic will have to wait.