Citizens need to be heard

Published 10:07 pm Thursday, October 16, 2008

Southside citizens need ward meetings now. Our homes, businesses and pocketbooks are in danger, and we need to defend our livelihoods against our representatives on the City Council.

City Hall was packed with concerned taxpayers speaking on the City Council’s proposed tax increase for the 2009 city budget at the Oct. 6 City Council meeting. With the national economy collapsing around us, we all feel the pinch of higher gas and food prices.

But, what the city council does with our local property rates could be a body blow that puts a lot of us down for the count.

We know that Councilmen Benny Burgess and Barry Cheatham had been elected by voters who wanted a more fiscally responsible city government. They had to go out into their wards, fight for their seats and hear their bosses — the voters — tell them to rein in spending. But, compare them to the Southside councilwomen. We have Vice Mayor Raystine Johnson, who was appointed to the City Council years ago and has never had to run for office, along with Mary Hilliard, who hasn’t had a challenger in more than 20 years.

They have been on City Council for so long, they have forgotten that they need to talk to the voters from their wards. Johnson has never had a ward meeting to discuss the budget.

Johnson, Hilliard and Lawrence are members of the council’s voting majority when it comes to raising taxes. They are the same people who Burgess and Cheatham voters were rallying against. So far, they have loyally followed Burgess and Cheatham’s every whim, but old habits die hard.

If we don’t unite and tell them what we want in ward meetings they will do what they have always done, and that is follow the majority and stick it to our pocketbooks while blaming the mayor.

If the Southside voters fail to speak up now, Johnson, Hilliard and Rosa Lawrence will probably vote for the tax increase. What we are facing is a 10.39 percent increase in property taxes, based on a proposed rate of 85 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Think about it. Employers are cutting hours, laying off workers and not hiring new people. With this kind of tax hike, landlords will feel the pressure to raise rents. Most of the Southside already couldn’t afford rents in a so-called good economy, so what do you think is going to happen to us in a bad one?

I propose that the City Council drop the tax rate to 70 cents per $100, and balance this reduction by increasing revenue by taking the Franklin Redevelopment and Housing Authority land off the tax exempt list.

The FRHA is a tax-exempt entity, and the properties in its portfolio are tax exempt. This means that all of those unsold houses and lots on Langston Street and public housing projects are not generating tax revenue for the city. The FRHA can convert the public housing complexes to rent-to-own affordable houses for the tenants, thereby creating new tax revenue while reducing the strain on the current tax paying citizens.

The City Council needs to lead by example, and cut their salaries and operating budget.

The way it now stands a 3-cent real estate tax increase will provide $162,024, or $54,008 per 1 cent at a 98 percent collection rate.

The City Council budget is $313,196. City Council salaries are budgeted at $62,876. The City Council’s line-item budget also designates $65,000 for professional service, dues and association memberships at $19,653, $13,500 for travel, professional and contractual services for $69,000 and $46,912 for miscellaneous council expenses.

By eliminating travel, professional services, dues and memberships, and miscellaneous from their budget, Johnson, Hilliard and Lawrence could reduce the tax hike by about 4 cents and never touch their own salaries or touch services such as police, recreation or schools.

Everyone should do their part, and the City Council should lead by example and cut some of their frills and excesses first.

Anything less is far beyond disappointing.

Thomas Councill Jr. is a Southside resident and landowner. His e-mail address is