Complaining About County Taxes? Seriously?

In our agony about raising money for Knox County schools, we should take just a moment to acknowledge that among urban counties with populations of over 400,000, Knox County is still one of the nation's basement bargains. I own a home of pretty average value, and I pay county property taxes cheerfully every year. It's pretty damn easy, after all. I spend more on coffee. And I'm mainly a tea drinker.

We like to make a huge fuss about some expenses, but quietly swallow other, much bigger, often much more mysterious ones. I think it's just because we know our politicians, who set our tax rates, are obliged to listen to us. Others, medical providers, auto mechanics, cell-phone companies, private colleges, big banks, oil sheiks, don't have to listen. With them, we just shut up and pay.

A few months ago, I found myself unexpectedly in an emergency room with a broken arm. I paid an anesthesiologist to put me under for half an hour, long enough for a bone surgeon to patch the bones together. The guy paid to knock me out safely seemed like a very nice fellow, though I only spent a couple of minutes talking to him, and I don't remember his actual name. I should add he did an excellent job of it. He gave me a proper dose. I woke up successfully, and didn't remember anything I shouldn't have. It was probably the only period of the ordeal when I wasn't wondering how much it was all going to cost, and I'm grateful to him for that.

I have pretty good health insurance with a corporate family plan. But the amount I paid that anesthesiologist, after insurance, out of pocket, is almost twice my entire annual county-tax bill. That bill had nothing to do with the bone surgery itself, which is a lot more. Or any of the associated hospital charges, which are a whole lot more, and the most mysterious of all.

A lot of the hospital charges I had a hard time separating out in a way that made sense, figuring out exactly what I was paying for what, and why. But here's one example: 15 minutes of occupational therapy, which consisted of a young woman of about 23 telling me I should try to exercise my fingers, and giving me a photocopy of some exercises. She was sweet, and taught me four useful shapes to make with my hand to keep my wrist exercised.

Paying her for that 15-minute visit was the equivalent of paying Knox County taxes for my home for three months. Maybe she earned it, but I was watching, and in that 15 minutes, she did not appear to sweat.

That wasn't very much of the total hospital bill, of course, a lot of which remains murky. In all, I've learned, a half-hour surgery for one broken arm costs more than 20 times as much as paying taxes on an average Knox County home every hour of every day every day for one full year—and getting an education for our kids; a public library system that's unusually convenient, in terms of branches per capita; sheriff service; and lots of other amenities, including several nice parks.

Our family auto insurance is twice as much as our county-tax burden. We pay three times as much for cell-phone service, annually, as we do for Knox County taxes. I don't even want to think about auto repair. My son's last set of tires cost more than our living in Knox County does.

Apples and oranges, you might say. But after almost 30 years as head of a modest household, in which a print reporter's salary is the biggest source of income, county taxes have never been much of a concern. Knox County's not in the top 20 expenses in our family's annual budget. What's the big damn deal?

Please stop whining, folks. We have real problems. Education is one.

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If a budget scare can make us more accountable, all the better. Why does education cost more today, anyway? Building standards have gone up, and with them, expenses. The price of books has gone up. Teachers' salaries, and health-care plans, have gone up.

And our living habits have forced expenses up. We have decided, as bold individualists, that we'd rather spread ourselves across the landscape than live in the old neighborhoods, that were already equipped with elementary schools and high schools. It's a choice of free people, but we don't always pay for our choices.

Hence we build a huge new high school at Hardin Valley after abandoning old high schools at Rule and South and Young, just to mention a few I'm old enough to remember. Old Knoxville High, which we've been trying to figure out what to do with for 61 years now, is older still.

Building schools is expensive, and abandoning schools is expensive, too. Demolishing big buildings like schools is expensive. If you maintain them in hopes of finding a buyer, that's expensive.

All the while we're making no improvements to actual education; we're just adjusting to people's changing tastes in housing.

One irony is that Hardin Valley serves many families who will cheerfully tell you that one big advantage of living in the Hardin Valley area is freedom from city taxes. But people in the city, who miss the urban high schools we used to have, still have to help pay for their choice to live there.

There's no way to turn back the clock on Knoxville's suburbanization; it's been going on since the 1920s, seemingly at a gradually accelerating rate. It's expensive to the community, in ways that aren't reflected in the prices of suburban homes.

Suburbanites require more asphalt per capita, more sewerage, more utility-line footage. Developers don't pay for all of the expense, and the people who buy from them don't, either. Some progressive communities enact "impact fees" that help pay for suburban infrastructure, and make up for the difference. That won't ever happen here. But in the absence of that sort of thing, maybe we just need to pay up, in the conventional ways.