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Posted: May 16, 2013 6:28 p.m.

Property tax proposal doesn’t add up

The word tax is a three-letter word that might as well be a four-letter word these days.

Forget that paying taxes is what we do to receive government services — like police, fire protection, paved roads, utility services and garbage pick-up.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who likes to pay taxes, but believe it or not, you’d find a few willing to pay higher taxes for quality-of-life amenities like parks, trails and recreational options such as skateboard parks and aquatic centers to keep young people engaged and out of trouble.

Americans have had a conceptual problem with taxes ever since the Boston Tea Party. The issue then, however, was not taxes per se, but taxation without representation.

We’ve got representation now in Washington, D.C., but it’s safe to say that a great many of those who represent us in Congress are bought and paid for by corporations that don’t pay any taxes at all, thanks to preferential tax treatment the Congress doles out in return for campaign donations. Dirty business, it is.

A few years back, a man named Grover Norquist got Republican candidates in a chokehold by demanding signed pledges never to vote for tax increases.

Today, many of those signatories have begun to backpedal on those pledges, as it’s clear that drastic cuts in federal spending aren’t enough to bring down the federal deficit. Some tax increases have to be part of the equation. The easiest campaign slogan for anybody running for office is a promise to cut taxes, whether it makes any sense at all.

At the Covington City Council, members are considering a proposal by one member to cut city property taxes by half a mill, the millage rate currently being 8.208.

The example given was that an owner of a house valued at $150,000 would see city property taxes drop by $30 in the course of a year.

That’s less than a penny a day, and $30 over a year won’t quite buy you three pizzas.

Even the mayor called it "more symbolic than practically beneficial" in this newspaper’s account, while still expressing his fondness for the idea.

The other five members of council did also at first pass.

To cut city property taxes by half a mill, the council would also have to agree to cut by half a city employee pay increase of 5 percent proposed by new City Manager Leigh Anne Knight.

Our city employees are already paid less than "market" rates, said Knight, and retention of trained staff is an issue.

Forget that the proposed property tax decrease is so minimal as to be a joke; consider what a 5 percent pay raise would mean to our 334 city employees.

Outside of department heads, city employees are paid in seven different categories and pay scales.

Those deemed customer service/administrative make an average of $32,812; police make an average of $42,214; fire personnel, $37,470; 911 staff, $30,920; sanitation employees, $31,000; equipment operators, $36,465; and electrical linemen, $46,113, according to Knight.

Linemen require extra training and are particularly hard to retain, according to human resources director Ronnie Cowan.

"We train them and then they end up with better offers, and they’re gone," he said. (For example, median pay for a lineman in Athens is $57,220.)

If you averaged the "average" salaries above, you’d get $36,713. A 5 percent pay raise on that figure would amount to $1,835 in the course of a year, about $152 per month.

It’s not like winning the lottery, but it’s enough to consider a repair or new construction project at home, new tires on both cars and fixing the air conditioning in one, a new washer and dryer, or maybe helping a grandmother with a handicap ramp at her home.

Perhaps it’s easy for elected officials to forget that their constituents interact far more often with local government employees than with them. City employees put the face on government service delivery, and I, for one, have never met a city employee in this town who wasn’t proud of the job he or she holds and who wasn’t totally dedicated to resolving whatever problem or question I’ve had. Property owners will forget a millage rate reduction as ridiculous as the one being considered, but city employees won’t forget a 5 percent pay raise. And they also vote.

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She can be reached at barbm2158@gmail.com.

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