As the featured guest for the JFK Club, Helen Burns Sharp spent her afternoon educating the club about how tax breaks can be manipulated in a discreet manner. A self-described “public interest advocate” and founder of the Accountability for Taxpayer Money (ATM) movement, Ms. Sharp has spent her post-retirement years lobbying for transparency from the local government.
Using a detailed Powerpoint presentation to show these concepts, the speaker methodically went through each of her important points.
Ms. Sharp started by giving some background information on how she initially became involved in hounding the local government after her retirement.
“I was going to prove my friends wrong who said “This is going to be interesting, because if she has any hobbies, they’re a secret from us,” said Ms. Sharp, “Now, I wasn’t thinking ‘I am going to give the city a hard time in public meetings.’”
But in the end, ‘giving the city a hard time’ is exactly what Ms. Sharp has done for the last few years. Her goal is keep the local government accountable for their spending and actions.
She said, "I feel like some of us are almost like gladiators in the political arena, but there’s a lot of young people who can get into this too."
She continually said that this wasn’t a partisan issue, and that she has friends from both sides of the political spectrum interested in making the local government more transparent.
Her Powerpoint read, “Tax breaks is an issue all Hamilton County residents should be informed about, regardless of political affiliation. $26 million abated last year alone. This lost revenue, if collected, could provide more money for schools and for streets, sewers, etc. Social justice implications.”
These tax breaks were a point of emphasis for Ms. Sharp. According to the speaker, PILOTs (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) is a very important issue in Chattanooga. For instance, according to her Powerpoint, Volkswagen was given a tax exemption for everything aside from a school tax.
A school tax amounting to $19 million the German company still hasn’t paid, Ms. Sharp pointed out. She said Volkswagen isn’t breaking the law, since “There’s no law that says companies have to pay school taxes in full.”
“Our city and county governments need to adopt written policies giving criteria for approving and enforcing PILOT agreements. We lead the state in amount of tax revenue forgiven. The money could go to basic services,” she said.
She also took a minute to address the Planning Commission, which she said was more like a ”developing committee” who approved a lot of what was proposed. She made sure to say, “I’ve never been anti-development at all, but I believe a level playing field is important too.”
“ We need to level the playing field between the business interests and the public interests,” said the speaker, who is a former planner. “We should always be on the lookout for that.”
Ms. Sharp concluded her presentation by imploring the members of the JFK Club to get to know their city officials, and to hold them accountable for their actions. She said, "I don’t think our elected officials are bad. It’s a tough job."
She added, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot. Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”