Carnage in Carthage, TN

Cole Ebel is a man on a mission. Since being elected to the Carthage City Council last year, he has been digging into the bones of the city budget. It hasn’t been easy, as he has had to fight against an entrenched city bureaucracy every step of the way. “One step forward, two steps back” would be an extremely optimistic way to describe the situation. But Mr. Ebel is a libertarian; consistency and principle are the bedrock of his philosophy.

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A push by voters in November 2018 resulted in a successful referendum to lower sales tax. The establishment hit back by scheduling a special meeting on May 23rd to put a tax increase up for referendum. Luckily, local activism put the kibosh on that effort, and the meeting was cancelled. Mr. Ebel’s social media correspondence lists some of the relevant numbers. Budget projections of $3.1m against anticipated ‘revenue’ of $1.8m (combining the general fund and the water/sewer fund) should be enough to give anyone pause, but Mr. Ebel was the only city council member to call for both spending cuts and tax reductions.

Mr. Ebel’s explanations for his votes can be found on his official social media page, and they tend to be insightful and logical. His critique of the sales tax is based on the feedback of his constituency, of whom an overwhelming majority supported lowering taxes.  Mr. Ebel also condemned property tax as “feudalistic”, asking whether one truly owns property if they have to pay an annual fee for it. Sales tax, on the other hand is “somewhat voluntary. If you don’t want to pay it [sales tax], don’t buy it.” Others have called property tax “immoral”.

Local newspaper coverage.

Local newspaper coverage.

When the proposed budget came up for a vote before the council, Cole Ebel abstained, saying “I don’t believe in dipping into reserves. I had a two-hour budget workshop and need a chance to go over each line item and compare with past years to 2015 to get an accurate assessment, which I am waiting on the city to send me a format where it can take me just a few hours to sort as opposed to a few days. I want to find places to cut while keeping some reserves.” He stood alone.

As of June 18th, Mr. Ebel had been poring through the budget PDF and creating his own spreadsheet based on the numbers. After analyzing the resulting document, he announced “Good news! I’ve found ways to cut property taxes as well as possible water bills. I’m going to present the numbers which would make this work with a healthy safety net. If I can work this into the conversation and we can make this work, it would be a huge economical boost to our community and we would gain probable record sales tax revenue, starting the ball rolling towards more voluntary taxes and away from more forced taxes.”

“Low property taxes attract businesses,” said Mr. Ebel. “Low water bills attract businesses. Businesses bring more sales tax [revenue] and more entertainment, more economic development, and overall a better community for us to live in.” Sound advice to be sure, but seldom do elected representatives place the will of their base above their personal self-interest. This typically results in a form of cronyism; or what Tennesseans know as the “good old boy” system.

In a social media livestream, Mr. Ebel demonstrated a level of political transparency seldom seen in local politics; he posted his budget proposal to Facebook before officially presenting to the rest of the city council. The post was well-received, but city council didn’t adopt the proposal.

Current and past budget proposals.

Current and past budget proposals.

The following week, another meeting was held to discuss a property tax increase. The public comment portion of the meeting was robust. He exhorted his constituents to reach out to the city council and county commissioners to voice their displeasure at the status quo. Erika Ebel, Cole’s wife, serves Smith County district 4. Both libertarian activists, they are vocal, ardent advocates for smaller government.

When asked for comment, Mr. Ebel had this to say: “Encourage your city council members to go through line items and balance budgets, not to just take the word of city employees. I studied the budget in depth, with less than 24 hours off of a PDF format and made it balance. Our job as councilmembers is to balance the overall budget, keeping the city in check with the taxpayer, not the taxpayer in check with the city. We should be looking out for the needs of the people, not the needs of the government.”

Small government activism is always an uphill battle. It can’t be won in a top-down fashion; the infrastructure doesn’t exist outside of the two major parties. Those parties have a vested interest in maintaining the establishment paradigm, and they do all they can at every level to quash dissenting voices and challengers. This makes local races, grassroots campaigns, and innovative solutions all the more important. Libertarians are being elected to more and more local government positions, and a good thing, too. It turns out that while libertarians don’t like government, they’re pretty good at governing.

Update - On June 24th, 2019, the Smith County Commission voted 11 in favor and 12 against the property tax increase, a narrow victory for the residents of Carthage and Smith county. After the meeting was adjourned, those in attendance applauded. The county is required to pass a budget before August 31st, so the people are in for another big fight in the coming months. The Budget and Finance Committee will meet and prepare budget revisions. The meeting will be livestreamed.