Thursday, April 30, 2009

Taxes á la carte?

Where the city's money comes from and where it goes.

Posted By on Thu, Apr 30, 2009 at 4:00 AM

His possible 2010 congressional race, as Mayor Herenton knew it would be, is the distraction. The proposed budget, as Herenton knew it would be, is the hard part, here and now.

To City Council members, reporters, and good citizens, duty calls, and we must analyze this thing, incomplete though it is.

Where the money comes from: The operating budget for 2008-2009 is $637 million. The biggest chunk of that ($264 million) comes from property taxes. The next biggest contributor ($98 million) is the local sales tax, followed by state sales tax ($51 million) and fees from such things as ambulance service ($16 million), the airport ($3.6 million), golf carts ($1.3 million), and those pesky library fines ($1 million).

Where the money goes: The biggest expense is police ($216 million) and firefighting ($103 million), followed by debt service ($74 million), libraries ($19 million), and legal expenses ($18 million). Schools are separate; more on that to come.

Where are the mayor's proposed cuts? Herenton said he made cuts in libraries, parks, golf courses, and community centers. But those things are small change in the budget. If the city totally erased park operations, libraries, golf courses, recreation, museums, and the zoo from the operating budget, the total savings would be $48 million, or about 8 percent. Critics of the mayor often suggest that he should cut expenses in his own office, but that line item is only $1.4 million. To get big savings, you have to cut big expenses.

The police department is off-limits. Memphis earned a new label last week as the second most violent city in America, and FedEx CEO Fred Smith told the council last week that public safety is government's first duty.

The fire department got some scrutiny from the council a few years ago. Ex-councilman Jack Sammons and other members suggested there were too many fire stations. But that issue seems to have faded on the current council, which has nine new members.

That gets us to the Memphis City Schools, which has a budget of $948 million. Less than 10 percent of that comes from a council appropriation. Last year, the council cut its funding by $57 million, reasoning that the county should pick it up. That enabled the council to cut the property tax rate to the current $3.25.

"Fully funding the schools" is a confusing message. The size of the system has been reported as 103,000 students (Kriner Cash), 107,314 students (Tennessee Report Card), or more than 110,000 students (Irving Hamer, Cash's deputy). Herenton has been saying for years that several underused schools should be closed, and Smith recommended "a very tough approach to right-sizing" the system. But Herenton didn't renew the call last week. Instead, he told the council not to "play games." And he said the council should give $82 million to MCS, half-empty schools and all. If the council does that it will mean higher property taxes for Memphians, especially if their 2009 appraisals went up. City property taxes are calculated by multiplying assessed value by the tax rate — and two bigger numbers equals higher tax bills.

But Allan Wade, attorney for the council, spelled out a couple of other options last week in a letter to members.

The do-nothing option: Chancellor Kenny Armstrong said there was no definitive authority on the city-funding question and stayed his own ruling pending appeal.

"The budget as presented to you does not include funding for the Memphis City Schools," Wade said. "The council may if it chooses fund MCS from any source it deems prudent."

The do-something option: If a court rules the council must restore the $57 million for MCS for 2008-2009, the council could do that by a separate school property tax levy of 52 cents.

To keep the current tax rate of $3.25, Wade sent the council two proposed tax rate ordinances for the 2009-2010 fiscal year. One was for $3.06 on each $100 of assessed value; the other was for an additional 19 cents per $100 of assessed value for MCS.

Two tax bills, Wade said, "would promote more accountability from those who make the spending decisions for MCS to the public that pays the taxes. Further, there would be more awareness from the taxpaying public ... as to the true and possible double-tax burden being borne by city taxpayers."


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