It must be easy being Shelby County Commissioner Wyatt Bunker.
He never really has to be for anything or offer any real solutions. Instead, he just engages in his dependable political pandering: No tax increases, cut the fat, reduce the size of government.
So, it came as no surprise that in the wake of Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton’s announcement that he was abandoning his privilege tax proposal and setting up a task force to search for ways to broaden tax options for county government, Commissioner Bunker returned to his favorite refrain:
“We heard the old tired message once again that we’ve done all we can – that we can’t cut our way out of it…And then we go beyond that, like it’s a favor to our citizens and say we’re going to Nashville. We’re going to create a new tax for you to pay.”
Old Tired Message
It was but the latest verse in his favorite song – that the Wharton Administration can slash the county budget to eliminate the need for more revenues and just won’t do it.
Contrary to his opinion, the “old tired message” is actually his blind “no taxes, no time” vow, the same one that other right-wing legislators have been taking for years in their continued pursuit of suburban votes. In fact, it was this blood oath taken by former county mayor Jim Rout and the Republican majority of the board of commissioners that plunged county government into financial crisis in the first place.
Rather than deal with needs in an incremental way with small tax increases that were manageable, the no tax mentality dug a hole so deep that all of county government fell into it, making the inevitable tax increases onerous and making the county debt soar.
The irony of this has always been that the commissioners so consumed by this brand of political expediency often represented the suburbs, whose insatiable appetite for roads and schools was the chief factor in fueling the county’s soaring debt.
Charge And Spend
As a result, the suburban commissioners were chief beneficiaries of the “charge and spend” philosophy, the unmanageable county school district’s vacuous decisions on school locations, the passion for highways that shredded any sense of place and the hypocritical county policies that underwrote the services and major road construction of smaller municipalities while denying Memphis similar consideration.
Needless to say, all of this leaves us with little patience when we are confronted with the rhetoric of someone like Commissioner Bunker.
But here’s the thing. Ultimate responsibility for the Shelby County budget is not the mayor’s or any other fulltime elected officials. To the contrary, it is the board of commissioners that is charged with two overriding responsibilities – passing the budget and setting the tax rate.
Put Up Or Shut Up
In other words, it’s easy for Commissioner Bunker to mouth the lyrics to his favorite verse, but in the end, he’s the commissioner. If he thinks there’s a way to cut the county budget, let him lay out his plan.
But first, he needs to come to grips with a simple fact of life in county government: schools, jails/justice, and health care take up all of the county’s property taxes. Because of it, they are the prime targets for his slash and burn budgeting.
It’s always easy to put your loyalty behind your own political ambition. It removes any responsibility to be part of the team trying to find ways to deliver the services of county government without cutting the safety net that’s often the only threads holding together the lives of too many of our people.
One thing we have noticed over the years about the call by politicians like Mr. Bunker for government to act more like a business. Every one is for it as long it doesn’t touch them and their constituents. If Commissioner Bunker is really desperate to slice the costs of government, let him cut all subsidies to the county towns that he represents. If he’s serious, let’s refuse funding for any more new schools for the county school district. If he’s really serious, let him cut the budget of the board of commissioners, which has increased almost 60 percent in six years, or cut the commissioners’ $3.5 million contingency budget.
In other words, politics is nothing so much as who’s ox is being gored, and Memphis taxpayers have been gored for 15 years with the costs of unsustainable sprawl and the millions of dollars deposited into the pockets of politically-connected developers.
But the biggest hypocrisy of all is that in fighting against any tax reform plan that ever raises its head, Commissioner Bunker defends one of the most regressive tax structures in the United States. As we’ve written before, in a survey of the largest cities in each state and the District of Columbia, we have the third most regressive tax system.
The average tax burden for a family of four that owns a home inside the city limits for the 51 U.S. cities was 7.3 percent for families earning $25,000; 8.3 percent for families earning $50,000; 9.1 percent earning $75,000; and 9.2 percent at the $100,000 and $150,000 levels.
In other words, most cities have a tax structure that responds to a person’s “ability to pay.” Memphis does just the opposite. The more a family earns, the less it pays. The family earning $25,000 pays 7.0 percent, right in line with the average for the 51 cities.
The Rich Get Richer
But, the family earning $50,000 doesn’t pay more; it pays less – 6.2 percent. A family earning $75,000 pays 6.3 percent, one-third less than the national average; and the $100,000 income family pays 5.9 percent and the family earning $150,000 pays 5.6 percent.
O.K., if you know anything about this blog, it is our obsession with statistics, so let’s boil it down: In the higher income brackets, Memphis taxpayers pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than families making one-fourth as much. In fact, these Memphis high-income families are paying roughly 40 per cent less than the average of the 51 cities.
That’s why we welcome Mayor Wharton’s call for a task force to develop what we hope will be a comprehensive tax reform program for Shelby County. Our regressive tax system’s overreliance on property taxes and sales taxes cannot take care of the long-term needs in local government. Nothing less than total reform of the system can address the shameless tax structure that punishes those who can least afford it.
We are certain that Commissioner Bunker will rise in opposition to it. Perhaps, that is the greatest testament to its need.