In Tennessee, our fiscal year is coming to an end and every county is preparing for its next budget year. Our county and our neighbors are currently preparing budgets for 2019-2020. I have just read some comments on Facebook from our neighbors in Wayne County where the county government has proposed a raise in property taxes. In looking through the comments, it is obvious that they suffer from the same dilemma that we do in Decatur County - a citizenry who doesn’t pay attention to the details of what the Commissions do until it becomes a crisis. Before our county is faced with a similar situation, I want to point out several important facts that we all must address.
Every household sees increases in their fixed expenses (rent, utilities, etc.) as well as variable costs (food, gasoline, clothing, etc.). County departments are no different. The costs of supplies, operational costs (such as computer programs and services), fees, travel, etc. always increase. We should not be surprised that our county budgets must be increased to meet these expenses.
Each department must adhere to the regulations dictated from their higher counterparts. New compliance dictates from Federal and State agencies cause small governments financial distress as the cost to comply is often unable to be met without major tax changes. For instance, all government buildings must be ADA compliant in Tennessee counties no later than December 31, 2019. That will mean extensive alterations, additions, construction, etc. for many communities. Small areas are expected to meet the same criteria as larger cities.
When one analyses the tax burden of a landowner in a small rural area vs. those of larger metropoles, it is easy to see that often the rural taxes are relatively greater per economic levels than their city neighbors. (In smaller communities, poorer people end up paying a greater percentage of their income in taxes.) Having more people means the county can collect more tax revenue; thus, more people lead to less need for higher rates. Likewise, higher valuations of properties generate a greater total tax revenue. Small counties must have higher per capita property tax rates than a large metropolitan area simply due to the people-to-tax ratio factor. This is a losing proposition for rural areas where industry is scarce, and wages are low. The best financial solution for a small county is to change its demographic dynamic with more industry and higher wages.
The old dream of keeping rural life in a perpetual “Mayberry” setting is no longer an option. While small communities can retain their quaintness and family atmospheres, they must also adapt to an ever-changing world of technology. For example, we can still have brick-and-mortar boutique shops, but they can only operate profitably if they also have online storefront options with high speed internet connections. Similarly, large factories are being replaced with smaller more technologically advanced shops which require more skilled labor. Rather than look at progress as a devil to be feared, rural communities must view technologies and modernization as opportunities to enhance their ways of life.
This philosophy stands true for our communities. To reside in an area with a certain standard of living (i.e. paved roads, good schools, utility systems, police and fire, etc.), we must pay for those services. While every citizen will not benefit from every service offered (such as schools), we all benefit from the value that the service brings to the community (educated populace = better workforce = more industry = more jobs = better wages). One cannot expect to live in a socialized environment with no cost to themselves.
For a small rural county to be successful, we must ALL be part of the growth process. We can’t sit back and expect progress to fall at our door. The first step in creating a better county is to come to grips with our realities: expenses, needs, revenues, competition. When we understand WHAT we need, we can see WHY we must adapt, and HOW that can be achieved. It is then that we will be able to negotiate sensibly and logically with each other, without prejudice, jealousy or other emotional reactions to cloud our reasoning. No one likes taxes, but we must pay for the services that we require in a modern society.
As you will read several of the county's buildings need extensive and costly repair. In the past, Decatur County has not wanted to address the fact that our costs exceed our revenues. Prior Commissions have not wanted to consider tax increases – no one likes the thought of higher taxes. Yet, we have failed to keep up with the increasing costs of repairs, supplies, and general operations.
In trying to keep taxes low, we have underfunded the County’s funds and caused every department to run on unrealistic budgets. There simply has been no money available for continued maintenance, repairs and certainly not new parts. We have been so “broke” that we cannot fund a maintenance department and have one man to service the entire county. Needless to say, we operate on an emergency status situation where we are addressing only the most critical problems. These buildings, along with the destruction at Beech Bend Park, exemplify this critical condition.
Over the next week, the commission will be discussing the budget for 2019-2020. We will have to decide to either address our financial situation responsibly or we will be forced to cut important services necessary for our safety and standard of living