WHAT WE THINK: How to spend your tax dollars more effectively

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We think taxing districts in Shelby County do a pretty good job, but there are opportunities to spend your tax contributions for the greater good. We suggest a few.

A few weeks ago we examined piece by piece the structure of taxing districts in Shelby County. We endeavored to explain to you how, why and when your tax dollars are being collected and being spent.

We looked at 16 taxing districts that draw dollars from residents of Shelby County. At least four of them – all fire districts – aren’t based in the county but remain subsidized by you.

Collectively these districts take in more than $8.6 million annually, based on an average of 3 cents per $100 of assessed property value. Collectively they have more than $5.5  million of your money in the bank, holding onto those dollars until they see fit to spend them.

Similar scrutiny has been a focus statewide this past year. State Auditor Adam Edelen ordered a full-scale review of taxing districts and found that most were acting without oversight, stockpiling millions and operating as they see fit, not even filing budgets, as required by law.

Taxing districts are designed to provide you with needed services and to ensure that your investment is spent to the greatest level of public good for the intended service. We found in our examination that those in Shelby County largely have proven to be good stewards of your dollars. We haven’t seen frivolous spending, although there is significant stockpiling that causes us concern.

We haven’t seen controlled wastefulness, and we haven’t seen a great absence of oversight, even if county and city governments and even you, the bill payers, really can’t exercise control. Their boards are made up of good people who seem to be focused on the right efforts.

But we also haven’t seen the best possible organizational structures and visions to take advantage of these taxing districts. In many cases, we think their revenue streams create opportunities that should be considered, opportunities that could be lost in long-embraced practices and patronage.

To those points, we offer this list of suggestions. We realize that some of these couldn’t be accomplished simply by changing charters in the county, that state statutes dictate formations and formulas that are beyond the reach of local referendum or even simple control of the taxpayers themselves.

Still, we would be remiss if we did not point out potential value to the community, more logic to process and, in the long run, more efficient spending of the dollars that come from your pockets:

  • The 109 Solid Waste Board should be restricted in its scope, and its designated members subjected to public election. We don’t like appointees having so much control of so much money and being able to serve pretty much as long as they want. We think that, if the Soil Conservation Board requires elections for a miniscule amount of comparative impact, the 109 Board should, too.
  • We will reassert our position that the 109 Board’s plan for a $3.2 million trash/recycling center to serve all residents is not a satisfactory plan. Shelby County Fiscal Court and Shelbyville City Council should provide the trash/recycling system – the Simpsonville City Commission simply should add recycling – and the 109 Board’s focus should be narrowed to replacing outdated, existing facilities but not building a lavish new center. Curbside collection is our future.
  • As much as we admire that the Shelby County Public Library Board is planning to pay cash from its reserves to add onto our magnificent and historic facility, we just as strongly believe that adding onto that building is not a good idea. Libraries rapidly are becoming digital repositories and not simply archives of the printed word. We think the building at 8th and College Streets is sufficiently large to serve its primary role – we question the need for it to host exercise classes and cooking classes, which would seem the purviews of the Shelby County Parks Department and the Shelby County Extension office, respectively – and that there could be better investment in opening smaller, satellite facilities in, say, Simpsonville, Waddy and Bagdad to deliver opportunity and services via geography and not simply square footage. That likely could be accomplished at a savings from the expected $1 million expansion budget.
  • We think that Shelby County’s future predicates the creation of a county-wide fire department, supplementing the city’s, with control of all fire/emergency services for all citizens. We don’t like our tax dollars going outside the county – to South Oldham, Pewee Valley and Ballardsville, for instance – and we really think it absurd that there is a Long Run Fire District that doesn’t even have a fire department and contracts outside the county. Shelby County FD already controls the majority of the real estate, and it’s time that those in Bagdad, Simpsonville, Mount Eden, Waddy and East 60 were brought under its umbrella. Volunteers soon should become supplemental and not primary to our safety.
  • The combined position of the executive director of the Shelby County Health Department and the North Central Health District simply has too much central oversight. The person holding both those jobs, Renee Blair, is a qualified and dedicated leader, but she also controls the health departments in Henry, Spencer and Trimble counties. For one person to be employed by five different taxing districts – the four counties and North Central – is too much synergy and too much authority. We don’t have a problem with Ms. Blair individually. We simply are troubled that a single position is being paid $112,000 per year in Shelby County alone – more than any elected leader – for essentially doing one job. There is no clear successor or obvious limits in Ms. Blair’s sphere of control. Let’s give the regional authority to her and find someone to run our county health department who someday may be in place to succeed her. That’s better management and a vision for the future.
  • The Shelby County Tourism & Visitors Bureau is not funded by property taxes, but it does receive tax-generated revenue and spends it on behalf of taxpayers. Recently, its leaders asked the Simpsonville City Commission to allow the adoption of a statute-approved restaurant tax of 3 percent, money its staff would use to market the county. Commissioners have not responded, but expectations are that Simpsonville – whose economy should expand significantly after the opening next year of the Outlet Shoppes of Louisville – would, from its five existing restaurants and few grills, generate about $50,000 annually. How much would that number grow if the tax were expanded to existing restaurants in Shelbyville and Shelby County? Would it be more like $250,000 annually? We aren’t sure, but we do know the number won’t be insignificant and possibly could double or triple – or more – in the next five years. The existing hotel tax also will multiply with more visitors and more rooms. We’re OK with this concept of a restaurant tax, but we include one caveat: We want a significant portion of its proceeds devoted each year to funding the construction of the City Center performance and convention facility in downtown Shelbyville. We believe that a restaurant tax would draw directly from the pockets of Shelby Countians, and we believe Shelby Countians should have tangible benefit and not simply an expansion of marketing. Let’s approve the tax and build the City Center in partnership with the city, county and Shelby County Public Schools. Let’s create a legacy for the community, one that could expand tourism income as well. Everyone wins then.

We expect that those responsible for these taxing districts will feel chafed by these suggestions, that our concepts aren’t always the most popular and certainly not within established comfort zones.

But you, the taxpayers, are the bosses here. You hold the keys to each enterprise and the opportunity to affect change. Are you happy with what you are getting for your money? Do you see better ways, better ideas and grander schemes that could be embraced for the betterment of each of us and our county’s future in general, too?

We won’t stop offering ideas we think have legs. We think you shouldn’t, either. Think about it. Is your money being spent as effectively as it could be?