by Alexandra Edwards
After recent county commission statements, there can be no doubt that property owners are not in the mood for further tax increases. The "no more tax increases" chorus is not a new song coming from taxpayers - survey after survey have confirmed a desire for cuts rather than increases. In answer to the cry for less taxation county commissioner Ben Atchley made a valid point when he said "We can have all the naysayers in the world telling us not to raise taxes, but if they are going to say that then they also need to give us some type of plan," so I felt obligated to respond to his challenge. During the last county election, I ran for the office of County Executive on a platform of no more tax increases. I believed county government was growing too fast and spending more money than the citizens were willing to and in many cases could afford to pay. Let me make it clear up front that since his successful re-election, County Executive Gary Davis seems to have made an extreme effort to run the county in a conservative and fiscally responsible way and this commentary is in no way intended to tarnish the work he has done or cast criticism on his staff. But as I did run for office on a fiscal restraint platform I feel I owe it to the voters that supported me and Mr. Atchley in particular, to make comment and offer a plan.
I see the problems with balancing a budget a little like overcoming an error code on a computer - if you continue to do the same things and press the same keys then the same error is likely to pop up time after time. The only way to overcome the problem is to retrace your steps to a time when it was working OK and then decide on a different approach. Our budget problems can't be expected to improve if past mistakes are repeated and we continue to use temporary fixes. Unlike the computer though, county government is made up of real people with families that must be considered when making changes, so as I see it, the real challenge may not be to make changes but to make changes in the most painless way possible. Unfortunately, county finances did not reach this point overnight and just as the obese person was told "you didn't get fat overnight, it was one burger at a time," so it is with county budget woes.
Some of the budget remedies that I am about to suggest may seem a little extreme at first glance and are likely to cause convulsions in some segments of the community but fiscal change on the scale necessary to permanently alleviate county problems is not possible without drastic measures. Some of the suggestions may not be doable entirely at the local level and will likely be aggressively challenged by special interest, preventing them from being an instant fix but while we are in a recession it might be prudent to look beyond only this years budget to bring spending permanently under control.
There are two main categories that effect budget finances - how, to whom and how much tax is levied - and how efficiently it is spent.
How, to whom and how much tax is levied?
Bradley County's tax base is adequate to fund local government to a reasonable level but there are many institutions not carrying their share of the burden.
Equity in taxation is the goal of a fair system but in Bradley County several financially successful entities with revenue generating property pay little if any property tax. Examples are Lee University and the many church organizations that have headquarters here. But there are many others that enjoy quasi government status - thus avoiding taxation - but are in fact privately run, not for profit, revenue generating businesses, such as the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce, the Five Points Museum, Mainstreet Cleveland, the Tri-state Exhibition Center and the YMCA to name just a few.
It is not being suggested that places of worship or halls of learning be taxed or genuine charities but some of these organizations own dozens of revenue generating properties that are not used for these purposes. The exact number could not be ascertained but potentially the combined total could amount to millions in presently waived taxes. For most people money is tight, especially in these recessionary times, so all businesses, even not for profit businesses, should be expected to help pay for government services. City and county fire taxes are collected when property tax is paid so fire departments are also being short changed if property is exempted. If the Cleveland Fire Department were to receive all potential revenue it would ease the need to charge the county over $1 million annually to supplement the county fire service. Wouldn't it be possible to close some of these loopholes to spread the burden?
How efficiently are tax dollars being spent?
During a recession, in order to safeguard jobs it is vitally important to trim waste and spend less money. Walk into any local government office or school 25 years ago when taxation was relatively stationary and the lack of plush furnishings was immediately apparent. It was understood by government that there was only so much money available and a regular job and reasonable benefits were more important than a new chair and carpet. Today most government offices and new schools are luxurious by comparison. Pay increases and benefits of county workers have far outpaced the private sector with medical costs and paid leave crippling the taxpayer. It is wrong for pubic employees to receive better benefits and enjoy better surroundings than the people who employ them. Complaints of under-staffing are common while employees are being released to further their education at taxpayer expense and then qualify for a higher pay rating when they return. Furthering ones education should be an option for all citizens on their own time and at their own expense. If a department can function while an employee is in class then the need for that person becomes suspect.
Why are government buildings falling apart? Rewarding lack of maintenance with a new facility is setting a costly precedence. Is it becoming popular to purposefully let buildings fall into disrepair to hasten the need for a new and larger facility?
Membership to professional organizations, subscription to trade magazines and trips to professional gatherings and seminars need not be taxpayer financed. No one is forced to become or remain a public employee and it should be made clear that public employment is not guaranteed for life. It is understood that when times are tough in the private sector people are laid off and re-employed if business picks up - the same should be expected for public employees.
Throughout the past year funding and subsidies in the form of tax breaks have been promised to various groups, organizations and companies which has left it impossible for the Commission to fully fund everyday government operations without increased revenue. It is unfortunate that hardworking and efficient departments are being forced to cut while non-essential activities that were previously promised support escape unscathed. Would it not be possible to revisit all of the past year's allocations and subsidies, withdraw funding where possible and use the new total to at least fund essential departments at last years level?
County school renovations and staffing the new justice center will provide an extra challenge to the county commission if they are to keep their pledge of no tax increases but I believe it would not be impossible with courage and tenacity.
Providing we permanently freeze spending to last year's level and require those entities not paying their fair share to do so by the beginning of 2004 it should increase county and city coffers sufficiently to complete essential projects in the pipeline now and fully staff the jail next year. In the meantime the new jail should be staffed as best the Sheriff can without increases to his budget.
The County Commission should request bids to comply with the minimum requirements to bring Bradley Central High School into compliance with the state fire marshal's report with no extras tacked on. Then offer the Bradley County School Board the option of accepting the lowest bidder or waiting until revenues become available through growth to renovate the school. If a parent is unable to drive the children to school, bus transportation should be available at cost.
As I said at the beginning of this commentary, the real naysayers will find creative reasons not to be fiscally responsible. It will require extreme courage and tenacity from council members and commissioners and a rallying of the public support that exists to get the job done. It can be expected that all manner of reasons will be suggested as to why reform can't be implemented, but without drastic and courageous measures even if taxes are raised, the commission and city council will be facing the same tough challenges again next year.
Despite the claims of tightened belts and trimmed fat there are still excesses that could be eliminated if jobs are to be saved.
This is just one possible plan but there are probably countless others if our leaders seriously approach the task.
Raising taxes may seem the easiest solution but in the long term its not.