The county tax scam

The county tax scam

October 20th, 2009 in Opinion Times

Before they say another word against the city's annexation plans, county commissioners should just stand and declare that they are blatant hypocrites when it comes to their anti-annexation arguments. They also should finally say, loud and clear, that they just don't care a hoot about tax or governmental fairness for the 71 percent of Hamilton County residents who pay municipal taxes for their urban services, as well as county property taxes which are then used to pay for the urban services of the people who live outside of the county's 10 municipalities.

And the same county commissioners who keep making their absurd arguments that annexation ought to be subject to a referendum in areas to be annexed should also say, for equality's sake, that municipal residents should get to vote on whether their county property taxes may be used to subsidize the county's urban services for residents of areas subject to annexation.

Time for fairness

Really, it's time for fairness in these arguments. County Commissioners, after all, are elected in county-wide districts. In roughly six of these nine districts, the majority of their constituents are residents of the city of Chattanooga or one of the county's other nine municipalities. Indeed Chattanooga's 170,880 residents represent more than half the county's total population of 332,848, according to Census figures through 2008.

Add in the 65,022 residents of the other nine municipalities, and the number of municipal residents in Hamilton County who pay both municipal and county property taxes totals 235,902, or 71 percent, vs. the 96,946 residents, or 29.1 percent, in unincorporated areas who pay just the single county property tax. Yet the latter receive tax subsidies for their fire service, sheriff's patrol, streets and road maintenance, and sewer bonds from municipal residents' county property taxes.

A municipal vote on taxes

Given this inequity, the County Commission should not be opposed to giving their municipal constituents attention and concern at least equal to that which they give people who oppose being annexed, but who gladly rely on municipal subsidies, plus the cities' roads and businesses for their jobs, shopping and urban amenities.

So here's a logical question for Commissioner Larry Henry, among other commissioners who say similar things: Why does he say that annexation amounts to "taxation without representation" if it's not subject to a vote, or that annexation should only be considered in the context of "government by the consent of the people."

He and other county commissioners, after all, have long refused to establish tax-service districts for unincorporated areas of the county, which is to say, unannexed areas. They don't ask residents of Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain, Walden, Signal Mountain, Collegedale, Red Bank, East Ridge, Soddy Daisy, Ridgeside or Lakesite, if they approve of their county property taxes being used to pay for the sheriff's patrol, street and road service, volunteer fire department equipment or sewer bond funds in unincorporated areas. Yet county government does not provide any of those services in incorporated municipalities, nor do they refund to the residents of these municipalities an equal pro-rata share of their county property taxes to reduce the municipal tax burden that they pay for their own similar services.

That's "taxation without representation." And County Commissioners have been doing this double whammy-double taxation scam against their municipal constituents for decades.

County dodges state law

There's even a state law that requires county governments to establish fire-tax districts or to provide urban municipalities an equal share of any money they spend on equipment for volunteer fire departments. But the Hamilton County Commission -- whose members also include Fred Skillern, Curtis Adams, Warren Mackey, Bill Hullander, Greg Beck, John Allen Brooks, Richard Casavant and Jim Coppinger -- are generally knee-jerk quick to take the anti-annexation side of the 29 percent of their constituents who get the tax subsidies from municipal taxpayers without ever thinking about eliminating the tax inequity they so willingly perpetuate.

Of course, annexation opponents like their sweetheart tax deal. And except for the fire-district tax law, county commissioners can generally evade the tax equity issue because, as an original arm of state government, they are generally prohibited from providing urban services with county funds.

A fair two-tier county tax

That prohibition does not stop them from providing a two-tier property tax -- one for municipal residents who pay for their urban services through their own municipal taxes, and an equitable higher tax for those who still live in unincorporated areas and get their urban services from their county tax.

It is that inequity -- and the justifiable discontent among municipal taxpayers -- that has long fueled metro and consolidated government referendums, for the purpose of establishing a fair tax for countywide urban services.

If we're going to have a vote on tax equity, let's vote on the issue of metro or consolidated government for countywide urban services. At its core, after all, that is the reason that state law justifiably allows municipalities to annex unincorporated areas that lie in their growth boundary areas and vastly benefit from municipal infrastructure. There's simply no need for a vote on the equity of that sort of annexation.