Corn Flakes and Local Government

If you live in Memphis … In the last 6 months your city property tax rate has increased, your county property tax rate has increased, your water rate has increased, now your sanitation fee is being asked to be increased, and there’s been a creation and increase in a street light fee. That is all in the last 6 months. Next year they are going to ask for another sanitation fee increase in the form of pay-as-you-throw. This needs to stop,  in my opinion. We need to stop, slow down, because the public keeps paying more for the benefit of city hall.
— Jim Strickland, Memphis City Council, December 3, 2013

Mr. Strickland won the argument about this sanitation fee increase, he asked his fellow council members to vote no. The council rejected it for the budget item that supports the garbage and yard trash pickup. That fee, by the way,  is put on the Memphis Light, Gas, and Water (MLGW) utility bills.

It would seem there was a time when a city fee was only assessed for something that was voluntarily used when it was used, and if not used, there was no fee. For example, if you played golf at a municipal course, you had to pay a greens fee. That happens to still be case for golf, but not for many of these newer fees. If you live in Memphis and get an MLGW utility bill, these other fees beyond the cost of your electricity, gas, and water are also on there. If you only put your cart out on the curb for garbage pickup every other week instead of each week, you still pay the full fee that everyone else does. It is not voluntary, you do not get a choice of whether you want the service and therefore are willing to pay for it. You are required to pay whether you use it or not, like most of all the other things in the general operating budget. It is just as if it was paid for by property and/or sales tax revenue, which it is not.

Years ago, the cost of running the sanitation department was borne by the property and/or sales tax. So was the cost of the sewer system. So was the storm water drainage system. So was the Health Department’s efforts at mosquito and rodent control.

Not anymore. All of those items appear as a separate fee on Memphians’ MLGW bills. Starting in January, there will be another fee for street lights. For a non-apartment residence, it will be $4.32 a month. If you own a small business property, it will be $6.48. Large businesses get hit with a new $19.07 per month fee. Previously, the street lights in Memphis had been paid for by your property and/or sales taxes.

Dwan Gilliom, the Director of Public Works for the city of Memphis, who oversees the sanitation division, has said that he considers the garbage pickup service Memphians receive at premium level. He is too young to remember when garbage was picked up twice a week, from the residents’ back yards, and the cost was covered by the property and sales tax revenues. There was not a separate fee. By comparison, that was a premium service and what we have now falls far short of that. Today, of course, there is that separate fee of $22.80 a month for a homeowner, the garbage is picked up only once a week and someone besides city employees has to get it to the curb to be picked up.

The local fees and services Memphians get and pay for, however that cost is assessed, has been approved by the political process. The voters have chosen the members of the City Council and the occupant of the Mayor’s office and those officials and their predecessors have designed our services, taxes and fees. The result may be what the majority of Memphians want. If that’s the case, it is as it should be. On the other hand, it may be like the cereal box on the shelves at your local grocery. It may look the same, it may be the same size, it may even cost the same, but what you get inside is less product for that same price.

How many of us read the small writing on the box that tells us there are fewer ounces of corn flakes in the box than there used to be? Do we consciously or only unknowingly accept that per unit of product it costs more?

Similarly, how many of us pay attention to the shifting of costs from the property tax to mandatory fees? Naturally, we concentrate on our property tax rate since that generally results in our highest local tax obligation, so if it stays the same, or goes up or down just a little, we may think we are getting the same level of service for that price. Do we give adequate attention to a small new fee or a little upward adjustment in an existing fee that is billed separately from the property and sales taxes, even if the service or product used to be covered by those taxes?

Is it time we “stop, slow down,” as Councilman Strickland advises and take stock of all our payments to local government and the services provided? He seems to think this would be a good time.

Some would likely suggest that any time is probably a good time for the people to take a close look at their government and evaluate whether it is acting properly in a responsible manner according to the will of the people.