Tax Rate Truth – Part 3: Sales Tax Risk

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Too much dependency on sales tax leads to a need to raise property taxes when the economy slows down. Improperly tying support of our schools to sales tax revenue also will lead to property tax increases.  Here we see a clear example of this in FY14, proof that we need to be careful about how we use our variable revenues. Recent budgets show the City has learned from these lessons and remains conservative in their sales tax revenue projections. What does that mean in layman’s terms? If you are paid on commission for your work, you probably shouldn’t build your household budget for the year on your best month of sales. Alderman Barzizza and Massey both pushed for the last two budgets to include a higher dependency on sales tax revenues.

Hear him in his own words here. Then listen to Patrick Lawton explain the way sales tax is budgeted and why.

Shortfalls in sales tax projections first impact Infrastructure Replacement Programs (IRP) and then Capital Improvement Programs.IRP projects are things like roads, drainage and water main projects that provide services to our city.  CIP projects are investments in our future like a fire station, schools or greenway improvements. Being conservative in our estimates allows the city to pay cash as opposed to issuing debt and maintains our fund balances needed to keep our rates low. Click here for more info on the Reserve Balances in Tax Rate Truth – Part 4

The budget doesn’t clearly call out the impact of the sales tax shortages other than showing a 4% shift. High level math says that a 4% shift in the General fund of $43.6 Million would be a $1.7 Million shift into property tax funding. With the FY14 Budgeted Property Tax Revenues of $28 Million that implies that roughly $0.12 of the $0.445 increase is due to Sales Tax short falls.

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Keep in mind that the value that you get for that $1.97 (or $1.95 for FY19) tax rate. Our neighbors in Memphis pay $4.05 or over double our rate. Collierville pays $1.83 but they have a much larger dependency on Sales tax with more big box stores like Lowe’s, Home Depot and Walmart. They also see more sales tax revenue from car dealerships and the Carriage Crossing Mall. Collierville’s dependency on sales tax, and shortages this year, resulted in them having to cut positions from their FY19 budget. We don’t want to be in that position.

Tax Rate Truth – Part 2: Do The Math

For over 15 years I have worked in corporate finance. I have made a living telling stories with numbers, helping executive leadership to understand complex investments, operations and projects in as simple terms as possible. It is easy to get turned around by all these numbers, it happens to the best of us. That is why I have worked with my father, a retired Certified Financial Planner, to double and triple check these calculations.

The first step in this process is to look at the FY14 rate and its individual components. As you read this you will find that there are clear economic, legislative and community needs that drove the increases.

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Step two is to account for the impact of the FY18 reassessment impact. The reassessment raised the average value of property in Germantown by 9.7% between FY14 and FY18. That doesn’t mean that every house went up in value by that amount, it is simply the weighted average impact to assessed values of property in Germantown. To keep comply with the Truth in Taxation laws and keep the revenue generated from the city’s property tax rate flat, it was calculated that the rate should go down to $1.76. So all of the items above that used to sum up to a $1.93 tax rate now sum up to $1.76. I will refer to that impact as rate restatement. That means that the base rate in FY14 is no longer $1.485, the impact of the reassessment make that $1.354. The math in the table below shows the breakdown of the FY14 rate in FY18 terms.

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One major part of our concern is that the impact of the FY14 reassessment is lumped into their calculation for the tax increase. In FY14, the decline of property values meant that the rate had to be increased to hold revenues flat (the inverse of what happened in FY18). That is the second of the two lines highlighted in red above. That going forward that number is included in my FY14 base as it is not an assessment impact as opposed to a rate increase.

To accurately state a growth rate you have to have a good starting number. When they use $1.485 as their starting point they are omitting two key factors for accurate analysis, assessment impact and rate restatement. So when you restate the rate it is $1.354 and add back the assessment impact of $0.087 your growth rate should be calculated based on $1.441 in terms of the FY18 tax rate.

The table below shows how you add up the restated components of the FY14 tax rate with the FY18 increases to get the final rate approved by the BMA.

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Now we are in a position to calculate a growth rate. We have a correctly adjusted base number to have a true apples to apples comparison. You can see the components that drive the increase. Please take a moment to understand the importance of the Sales Tax Impact and why we must be conservative in our budgeting of it by reading Part 3 of this blog. It is also important to understand that the FY14 increase was intended to restore reserve balances that had been lowered due to the Great Recession, read more about that in Part 4 of this blog.

Also keep in mind that these rates help fund our schools and 9% points of the total increase of 36.7% directly funds the needs of our new elementary school and Forrest Hill improvements needed to access it. The Hall Tax is a state income tax that was allocated to municipalities and is being phased out. That funding gap needs to be addressed. When you look at the components, it is clear to see your taxes were not frivolously raised for no reason. As stated previously, there are clear economic, legislative and community needs that drove all of these increase. These rates have helped fund deferred maintenance at GMSD, invest in parks, improve the police force and add ambulance service. All these things add to quality of life in Germantown and make it the place to live in Shelby County.

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Keep in mind that the value that you get for that $1.97 (or $1.95 for FY19) tax rate. Our neighbors in Memphis pay $4.05 or over double our rate.  Collierville pays $1.83 but they have a much larger dependency on sales tax with more big box stores like Lowe’s, Home Depot and Walmart. They also see more sales tax revenue from car dealerships and the Carriage Crossing Mall. Collierville’s dependency on sales tax, and shortages this year, resulted in them having to cut positions from their FY19 budget. We don’t want to be in that position thus we budget conservatively.

 

Tax Rate Truth – Part 1: Summary

Screen Shot 2018-09-20 at 9.52.10 PM.pngWhen the Barzizza, Brown and Sanders team quote that your tax rate is up 44.1% since FY14 (Fiscal Year), they are wrong.  They rush to over simplify complex financial concepts to raise emotions. They are either not doing research, willfully ignoring fact or blatantly lying to voters.

This topic is complex and requires attention to detail to understand. To assist in this we are breaking the blog up into multiple posts to highlight important key aspects. While this post covers most of our key points, I encourage you to read them all for a better understanding so that you can make an informed decision, not an emotional one.

First and foremost the FY14 increase of $0.445 included a state required $0.095 increase to offset the impact of lower property value assessments. Shelby County reassesses property values every four years and Tennessee’s Truth in Taxation law requires that the rate be adjusted so as to not  impact the revenues collected by the city. FY14 is when you saw continued impacts of the down economy resulting in lower assessment prices. With lower assessments a higher rate is needed to collect the same revenues for the city. Because not all homes are impacted by assessments the same way, your actual tax bill will very even if there were no change in the rate. The $0.095 assessment impact is clearly called out in Mayor Goldsworthy’s cover letter on they FY14 budget.

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Had nothing else changed in FY14, the tax rate would have increased $0.095 and it would not be considered a rate increase.

Second, you need to do what is commonly referred to as an apples to apples comparisons of the increase to calculate the growth. It is like buying a car.  One cannot fairly compare cars on price alone – features must also be compared to adjust for price differences. My math below is a summary of several steps taken to do an apples to apples comparison of the base rate in FY14 vs. the easily identifiable increases that make up the FY14 and FY18 tax increases. Since FY14 your tax rate is up 36.7%, yes that is significant but not the 44.1% they claim. Based on my research I was able to isolate a few key drivers of the tax rate increase. The column on the right shows you just how much your taxes increased for each of these drivers.

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Tax Rate Truth – Part 2: Do the Math. My detailed calculations to normalize rates due to the impact of assessments are available here.

Two of these factors simply replace tax revenues from other sources. The FY14 shortage in Sales tax and the elimination of the Hall Income Tax. These two items account for $0.19 (or 13.2% points) of the $0.529 (or 36.7%) increase.

It is important to understand what makes up that increase and what you get for those dollars. The city’s investments include the addition of ambulance service, a new police precinct and capital spending for GMSD as part of this funding. Keep in mind that GMSD inherited $26 million of deferred maintenance from Shelby County. The last estimate I saw was that we had worked that down to $11.4 million in just 4 years. A significant portion of that being covered by capital funding from the city.

Now, let’s put the increase into context. In finance, we use a calculation called Compound Annual Growth Rate or CAGR to put into context growth that occur over time or at random intervals. It helps you to see what the increase would look like if it were steady as opposed to occurring at random intervals. The CAGR calculation tells us that the annual growth rate of property tax rate in Germantown was about 2.5% between FY04 and FY17. The current tax rate is expected to support the city for another 5 years and if that holds true the CAGR would drop to under 2%. During these 14 years the CPI or inflation rate has had a CAGR of approximately 2%. Thus our city has grown, given pay raises, serviced debt, added a school system, upgraded roads, parks and built stable reserve funds all at the cost of living increase in taxes.

That kind of growth shows strong fiscal management over the long term. Keep in mind that property tax is intended to generate flat revenues over time even if the value of your home changes, unlike income tax where you pay more as you make more.

In addition to the assessment impact, the FY14 rate includes adjustments for sales tax shortages and funding of reserve balances. High level math indicates that the sales tax shortages left the budget short $1.7 million. We have warned about the dependence on sales tax in our school funding blog, this is a real world example of potential impacts. Even in a strong economy, an over dependance on sales tax has created problems for Collierville this year and resulted in cutting employees. The city has learned from this lesson and now budgets sales tax revenues conservatively in order to protect the property tax rate. Alderman Massey and Barzizza have both pushed for higher dependency on sales tax in the last two budgets. Tax Rate Truth – Part 3: Sales Tax Risks.Click here to read more about the importance of managing sales tax conservatively, hear John Barzizza’s comments and see the story about Collierville cutting employees due to this issue.

Reserve funding sounds like a savings account for a rainy day. In some cases it is and in other cases it is used as a savings account to be able to pay cash for things. Reserves also play a big part in our credit rating and the interest rates on money we borrow. Tax rate stability is also very dependent on reserve balances. Inflation impacts just about everything. For example, many vendors have escalation clauses in their contracts. To keep tax rates stable I may build a reserve early in a contract and draw down on that reserve later in the contract. For simplicity, say I am obligated to pay a vendor $100 over 5 years. I would build a reserve for that by putting $20 a year into the fund. My actual payments may be $18 in year one,$19 in year two, $20 in year three, $21 in year four, $22 in year five. Still a total of $100 but if I don’t use a reserve I have to raise rates every year. Click here to see more about the importance of reserves and how they are helping us meet our demands for schools, fire and parks. Tax Rate Truth – Part 4: Reserve Funding. Click here to see more about why reserves are a crucial part of our financial stability.