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Tax pledges sound good, but only shift burden around

Staff Report • Sep 27, 2012 at 4:42 PM

Elected officials in the town of Unicoi have promised not to levy property taxes. They have joined other politicians from Nashville to Washington, D.C., who have made similar pledges concerning taxes. It’s what voters want to hear.

“We will continue to provide you the services you want and need as if costs never go up.”

Granted, many governmental entities — particularly here in our corner of Tennessee — do a pretty darn good job in that regard. It’s been more than a decade since Johnson City commissioners last raised property taxes. City leaders can thank steady growth in sales and property taxes for that, as well as sound fiscal management.

But sooner or later, every local government hits that wall when revenues can no longer keep up with costs. Thus some crafty politicians turn to user fees. Want to enjoy that new city park? Well friend, you’ll need to pay a modest $5 fee to enter.

Tightening government helps stave off the inevitable, but sooner or later there comes the realization that the garbage must be picked up, schools still need teachers and firefighters and police officers have to be paid.

Of course, the mayor and aldermen in Unicoi don’t have to worry about such things because the town doesn’t offer garbage collection or its own school system.

Instead, those services are paid for by county taxpayers (which, of course, Unicoi residents are counted among). The town of Unicoi has the luxury of funding the few services it does offer through sales taxes.

On the other hand, Unicoi County commissioners have no such good fortune. They must rely heavily on the county’s already overburdened property taxpayers to pay for law enforcement, schools and other essential services.

And unlike Unicoi town officials, who pledged last week to never levy a property tax, Unicoi County commissioners voted Monday to raise property taxes by 13 cents.

As we’ve said before, anti-tax pledges are usually a lot of political hooey. State and federal officials have escaped tax increases in recent years by saddling local governments with unfunded mandates. Simply put, local taxpayers are being made to pay for all those hollow promises.

Shifting the tax burden from one level of government to another is disingenuous. So is misleading voters into thinking that they are not paying more in other ways to cover the government’s cost of doing business.

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