DEEP IN THE HEART OF TAXES

9 06 2012

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has asked for a one-half percent increase in the property tax, but from the howls of protest you would think he had proposed sacrificing the first-born of every Tea Partier or other stripe of reactionary in town.  Apparently not all reactionaries identify with the Tea Party.  Here are the words of one commenter in “The City Paper”:

I’m against this tax increase but not a member of the Tea Party. So how accurate is this article? Why would you call all citizens that are against an illogical decision at this time in the economy ‘tea party sympathizers’. Where did that come from? What a bunch of liberal whack jobs you have working for your paper.

Speaking of “illogical”…how about that jump to “liberal whack jobs”?  Highly amusing, from my point of view–as a bit of a “liberal whack job” myself, I have considered “The City Paper” to be a conservative-leaning, business-oriented, but relatively even-handed publication, certainly not  a bunch of ‘liberal whack jobs.” But hey, people are angry.  Pitchforks and torches are being joked about here and there, possibly the first step to actually putting them, or their 21st-century equivalents, whatever that may turn out to be, to use.  After all, who’s actually got a pitchfork these days?  And who remembers how to make a serviceable torch?

But I digress.  Two questions:  first, what, beyond characterizing those who oppose the tax hike as “tea partiers,” did the City Paper actually say that aroused this person’s ire?  Second, what about the commenter’s claim that raising taxes at this point is an “illogical decision”?

To my mind, the article mentions the Tea Party frequently because most of the people the reporter talked to, apparently, self-identified with the Tea Party.  And, to my mind, one of the characteristics of Tea Partiers is irrational, hair-trigger hostility to anything and anyone who doesn’t confirm their strongly held belief that they have a right to be who they are and what they are, i.e., a right to all the privileges their wealth and position as middle-class white Americans have always entitled them.  They adamantly refuse to reconsider this. A spiritual teacher I used to hang out with called the baby-boom generation of Americans “the most spoiled generation in the history of the planet,” and while the teacher ultimately proved to have his own failings, I think he got that part right. If you’re looking for a zombie apocalypse, America’s reactionaries are the zombies.  We’ll have the apocalypse soon enough, I suspect.  Meanwhile, let’s get back to Metro Nashville’s budget and its validity, or lack therof.

When I went to Metro’s website for budget info, the oldest budget I could pull up was the 2003 one, so I’m going to use that for comparison with Dean’s 2013 proposal.

The first thing to note is that Metro’s 2003 budget called for the raising and spending of $1.3 billion, while Dean’s budget for next year is a $1.7B pie.  That’s a 25% increase in ten years.  What’s inflated the city’s budget?  Do the Tea Partiers have a point?

Here’s some facts about changes in Metro’s budget over the last ten years.  The cost of running the government itself has gone up about fifty percent, from $143M to $220M.  The cost of Metro’s court system has gone up by about a third, from $42M to $55M.  The cost of running Metro’s police department and jails has gone up nearly a third, from $165M to $212M.  The city is spending ten percent less on building inspection and enforcing regulations, a drop from $34M to $31M.  Social service spending has been cut by nearly half, from $14M to $8M.  Health and hospital expenditures, on the other hand, have almost doubled, going from $40M to $78M.   Library funding has remained nearly flat, rising only from $18M to $21M, and the parks and recreation budget has declined by about 40%, sliding from $73M to $40M.   There’s good news in the “debt service” column, as the city is paying a little less there, $159M in 2003 versus $133M now.  The kicker, however, is public school expenditures, which grew by nearly a third, from $475M to $716M, and also grew from 36% of the city budget ten years ago to a projected 42% next year.

Is there a hundred million dollars that could be trimmed out of this?  Probably.  And yes, it would probably cause some pain, mostly among those who don’t need more pain.  Cutting the salaries of Metro’s highest-salaried employees would be a great gesture, but  mere spit in a hundred-million dollar bucket.  What’s a mayor to do?

The next question to ask about the city’s budget, of course, is “where do they propose to raise the money to pay for all this?”

Those who object to higher taxes may have a point here.  Factoring in the property tax increase, Metro expects to raise $893M from property taxes, about a third more money than the $610M IT collected in 2003.  The proposed hundred million dollar tax hike accounts for about a third of the increase in this revenue source, which the city expects to provide over half its income, up slightly from  45% to 52% over the last ten years.  The city is also expecting about twenty percent more sales tax income than it received ten years ago, $295M vs. $244M.  Metro also expects grant revenue to be higher than it was ten years ago, at $330M, while a decade ago the city “only” received $240M in grants.

Two streams of thought cross my mind about this.  The first is that yes, it’s entirely possible that Nashville experienced enough growth over the last ten years so that, even with the deflation of the real estate bubble, there could be two hundred million tax dollars more infrastructure in Davidson County, at least at pre-bubble-pop prices.  Presuming the 2013 re-assessment is honest, how much of a decline will we see in the local tax base?  In my neighborhood, I have seen land and homes sit with “For Sale” signs on them for years.  That’s fine with me, since several of these are development tracts and I’d rather not see them developed, but it doesn’t bode well for Metro’s revenue stream.  The second stream of thought is that, with the country’s economy withering in spite of all the cheerleading our leaders can muster, is it really reasonable to expect continued growth in sales tax income?  Well, yes, at least in the short term. According to the Tennessee Department of Revenue, sales tax collections in, for example, the first three months of this year and last year, are on a par with or slightly above what they were back in the glory days of 2006, when a man’s home was still his ATM machine.

I intended to compare the school board’s budget for 2003 with its projected 2013 budget, but they changed their categories at some point over the last decade, making a line-item comparison impossible.  I presume, however, that when the 2013 budget allocates $559M for “personal services,” that does not mean they will be spending the bulk of their budget hiring hookers.  The Metro Nashville School Board is not, after all, the CIA!

And, after all, this tax hike is not really that onerous.   It will amount to $16 a month for the average homeowner, which is more or less the cost of one large pizza or four gallons of gasoline.  “Oh, the loss of one pizza per month!  I can’t stand it!”  And the money the county collects will, after all, be spent in Davidson County, benefitting the county’s economy, even if not quite the way a property owner might have done it himself.

So, in a way, this tax increase is pretty trivial, only magnified because feelings of community and noblesse oblige have atrophied in America.

But there are deeper questions that this tax hike brings up, questions about the city’s competence to wisely allocate funds in general, and the way we spend money on education in particular.  Let’s take a music break and then I’ll talk about that.

Music:  James McMurtry, “Comfortable

There is a very common assumption among Americans, and really among most denizens of the developed world, that the way things have, in our experience, always been, is the way it’s always going to be.  That’s clearly the assumption underlying both our city’s budget in general, and the operational philosophy of our school system in particular, and my suspicion is that it is setting us up for a major disaster.

Our Mayor, Karl Dean, likes to style himself as “green,” and  frequently mentions his desire to make Nashville “the greenest city in the southeastern US.”  His vision of what that means seems to conform to the common delusion that if we just switch to LEED buildings and hybrid cars, and get more exercise, life will go on, “same as it ever was.”  He, and, indeed, all of us, including me, are likely in for a rude awakening about that over the next couple of decades.  Increased spending on police forces will not bring us greater personal security.  A new convention center will not bring us more tourist dollars.  Increased spending on education in its current form will not create a public prepared to cope with the many levels pf changes that are about to happen.

Ah, public education….I was raised by a school teacher, and I appreciate the fact that most teachers are deeply committed to the students they teach, work their asses off, and are underpaid for the time they put in and their level of education.  It’s important for young people to be able to make a personal connection with at least one adult who is not their parent, and that’s one of the important social functions teachers serve.  I also think it’s important for the citizens of a country to have a common body of knowledge and cultural heritage, and that’s an important function of our school system.  It’s not about preparing young people for ‘jobs,” it’s about preparing young people for life.   And I am very critical of the so-called “No Child Left Behind” educational policy that has been instituted in this country because it robs teachers of their creativity and flexibility, and institutes “ability to pass standard tests” as a measure of the success of a school teacher and a school system.

And that’s also the point at which my appreciation for our country’s school system passes over into criticism.  “No Child Left Behind” is simply a logical extension of the down side of our country’s educational philosophy, which is that it is intended to standardize people, to get them used to being treated as small, powerless subjects of a large, impersonal organization, subjects who will learn the importance of quiet obedience to authority, of showing up exactly on time, of eating lunch in a hurry, of stopping what they are doing when the bell rings, the importance of cheering for your school’s sports teams (later transformed into cheering for your army).  Real democracy demands rowdy people, not subdued ones.  Real democracy demands people who think for themselves, not people who think what they are told, whether it is by a teacher or a preacher or Faux News.  And the world we are heading into, “Eaarth,” as Bill McKibben has termed it, demands people with real-life skills, like how to grow food, how to improvise solutions and fix things, how to have a good time without electronic stimulation, and how to get along well with a group of people.  These skills cannot be learned in virtual reality or measured on a written standard test, and they are very peripheral, when they exist at all, in the curriculum of Nashville’s schools.

So, maybe, in the long run, we will be better off if we don’t give up one pizza a month for the benefit of Metro’s budget.  But maybe, in the short run, we will be better off if we do.  In all likelihood, Metro Council is going to take that pizza off our table and send it to City Hall.  Maybe we’d be better off if we learned how to make our own pizzas, from growing the wheat  for the crust right on through making the cheese and building the oven to bake it in, as well as the plate and table on which we serve it, the knife we cut it with, the napkins with which we clean our sticky faces and fingers, and the soap and hot water for the cleanup.  There’s nothing like the brain-tickling smell of fresh oregano to bring people to the table, no matter how lost in the illusion of modern America they may be.  We might just have to do it for ourselves until our leaders get the picture.

music:  Ani DiFranco, “J

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