Today’s morning newspapers both had articles (Oak Ridger: 13-cent tax hike projected and News Sentinel: Stagnant development behind OR tax increase) describing Steve Jenkins’ presentation at yesterday’s meeting of the City Council Budget and Finance committee, and both reported (based on a table included in Steve’s handouts) that Oak Ridge has the 4th highest property tax of Tennessee’s cities, “trailing only Memphis, Humboldt and Knoxville.”
There’s no denying that Oak Ridge’s property taxes are high in comparison with most other places in Tennessee, but it seems to me that that comparative ranking of property taxes levied by municipalities is misleading. Because of differences in which unit of local government provides various services, a comparison of local property taxes is not meaningful unless it also includes the property taxes paid to counties, as well as to special school districts where those exist. Comparing tax rates in municipalities that operate school systems and police departments (to name just two areas where municipalities differ) with tax rates in municipalities that leave these services to the county is not like comparing apples and oranges — it’s like comparing the cost of a full-course meal at one restaurant with the price of the main course (or even just the appetizer) at another eatery.
When total local property tax burdens are compared, it turns out that Oak Ridge has more company near the high end of the list, and the smallish West Tennessee city of Humboldt drops even farther down the list. According to the state comptroller’s office, the cities and towns in Tennessee with the highest combined local property tax rates (equal to or greater than the rates paid by Oak Ridgers) are as follows:
- Memphis (Shelby County) – $7.4732
- Bartlett (Shelby County) – $5.63
- Germantown (Shelby County) – $5.63
- Knoxville (Knox County) – $5.50
- Collierville (Shelby County) – $5.37
- Chattanooga (Hamilton County) – $5.356
- Oak Ridge (Anderson County) – $5.33
- Millington (Shelby County) – $5.32
- Humboldt (the portion in Madison County) – $5.30 (most of the city is in Gibson County where the combined tax rate is $3.78)
- Arlington (Shelby County) – $5.09
- Oakdale (Morgan County) – $4.98
- Lookout Mountain (Hamilton County) – $4.954
- Henning (Lauderdale County) – $4.95
- Bristol (Sullivan County) – $4.95
- Signal Mountain (Hamilton County) – $4.929
- Oak Ridge (Roane County) – $4.92
Viewed that way, it seems that Oak Ridge has more company than those newspaper articles suggested.
Note that this is not a comparison of total local tax burden. Notably, it does not include local sales tax (which is at its highest possible rate in both Anderson and Roane counties) or the wheel taxes that are levied in many Tennessee counties (not including Anderson and Roane). For example, without the $55 wheel tax in Metro Nashville Davidson County, Nashville’s total property tax rate likely would be a good bit higher than its current value of $4.69.