NASHVILLE -- Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, said Thursday that Knoxville's property tax rate may indeed be the lowest in a half century, but that does not take away the fact that a GOP rival, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, hiked taxes as mayor.
"He did raise them," the Blountville Republican told reporters. "And the reason he can say they're the lowest in several years is the fact that they went through a reappraisal and when you go through a reappraisal you lower the rate."
Mr. Haslam is spending an estimated $1 million running television and radio ads that tout his biography, including his work for the family's Pilot Travel Centers. The 60-second television spot, which ends a 16-day run Sunday, at one point features a box that says Knoxville has its lowest property tax rates in 50 years.
A third candidate, Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons, repeatedly has criticized the mayor over the assertion, calling it misleading. Lt. Gov. Ramsey called the criticism "fair." But he noted, "that's just hard to explain to people."
Mr. Haslam, who took office as mayor in late 2003, raised the property tax by 35 cents during his first year, citing a $10 million shortfall and other issues as the reason, according to an April 29, 2004, mayoral news release.
The mayor was in Nashville on Thursday with other large-city mayors to visit state officials including Lt. Gov. Ramsey. He disputed the assertion the ad is misleading voters.
"Here's the reality. Right now, as a percentage of the value of your home, you're paying less in Knoxville than you have in over 50 years," he said. "As a percentage of the value of your federal income tax, you're not paying a lower percentage. As a percentage of the value of a loaf of bread, you're not paying a lower percentage."
But he acknowledged that if he had not raised property taxes in his first year, rates would be lower still.
Ben Cunningham of Tennessee Tax Revolt, a group that often opposes tax increases, said that when Mr. Haslam took office in 2003, Knoxvillians' property tax rate was $2.70 per $100 of assessed value. In 2004, after the tax increase, it went to $3.05, he said.
A 2005 state reappraisal brought the rate down to $2.81. It dropped to $2.46 as a result of a 2009 reappraisal, Mr. Cunningham said.
"To characterize his entire term using that 2009 figure is, I think, a little bit misleading," he said.
Unlike District Attorney Gibbons and the fourth major candidate, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., Lt. Gov. Ramsey, the Senate speaker, has not often criticized Mr. Haslam, who with a robust campaign war chest is the first candidate to get ads on television.
But he noted Thursday that "in the end we will be pointing out that Mayor Haslam joined (New York) Mayor (Michael) Bloomberg's Mayors Against Guns (initiative). I'll be pointing out the differences we have not only on social issues but the fact I have actually run a small business and he just walked into the family business."