At some point during Monday's regular public meeting of the Shelby County Commission, one of several petitioners for this or that largesse suggested that what the commission could do for the greater community would be to serve as a bridge over the existing gap between haves and have-nots.
That set off Commissioner Wyatt Bunker, who several weeks back warned of creeping "Marxism" and this time saw yet another leveling mechanism at work. "That's not what we do," he said.
Whether Bunker liked it or not, that's what the commission did on Monday. Indeed, the body functioned like nothing so much as the board of directors of a taxpayer-funded bank, ruling thumbs up here (as in funding the bond issue for a University of Memphis-area commercial development) and thumbs down there (in declining to reconsider a black-owned firm's proposal for a school-construction contract), while hedging its judgments on two other contested matters involving public money.
On those latter two matters: The commission forgave a $1 million loan to the Memphis Rock 'N Soul Museum after forcing its director to make concessions on limited free admissions for students and Shelby Countians at large; it also tentatively released the first component of a community development grant in the LeMoyne-Owen College area, hinging the deal on what looked to be a pro forma follow-up by the office of county mayor A C Wharton.
(The commission's decision to defer to Wharton to ensure that the LeMoyne-Owen project's finances turned out to be in order made an interesting contrast to the cityside situation, where an ambitious new council is unlikely to cede any additional authority to an already impressively powered Mayor Willie Herenton. (See this week's Viewpoint)
Undeniably, political considerations crept into the essentially financial decisions made by the commission on Monday. As an example: Pressure for the Highland Street TIF (tax-increment financing) proposal from the University of Memphis and its boosters has been formidable indeed, and Commissioner Mike Ritz, who for weeks has been the major holdout on that particular TIF, pleaded in vain that, in the strict sense of the term, no "blight" (obligatory under the terms of the grant) really existed on the strip.
Later, when Jeffrey Higgs, executive director of the LeMoyne-Owen College Community Development Corporation, was making the case for his own project, he made a point of looking Ritz's way and insisting that "real blight" was to be seen in his territory. A smiling Ritz pointed back, signaling his agreement.
Ultimately, the only holdout on the LeMoyne-Owen project was Bunker, who, apropos several of the commission's judgments — past, present, and, presumably, future — lamented that the body seemed to have become a charitable institution: "We save colleges, we save museums, we save roller coasters ... "
In protest, Bunker attempted to halt deliberations on the LeMoyne-Owen project by invoking the dread Rule 33, whereby any member can ask for an automatic two-week deferral on an agenda item. For a variety of reasons having to do with federal deadlines, that would probably kill the project, responded county financial officer Jim Huntzicker. Presumably in order to keep peace with his commission mates (Deidre Malone had been heard to remark, concerning the future of Rule 33, "I'm going to get rid of that!"), Bunker ultimately relented.
A purely political judgment of sorts is finally what thwarted the hopes of the black-owned Salton-Fox Construction Company for restoration of its contracting role in a $50 million school-construction project. Henri Brooks, usual champion of African-American causes, withheld what would have been her decisive "yes" vote on grounds that to give it would be to provide cover for the company's role as a mere "front" for a white-owned enterprise. "I'm going to call it out," she said.
(Salton-Fox, apparently now exonerated of complicity, had first found itself in the crosshairs when it was identified as the donor of campaign contributions to public officials in connection with the case of former commissioner Bruce Thompson, now under federal indictment for extortion and scheduled to be tried in March.)
The commission's last act on Monday was both political and financial. By an 8-3 vote (dissenters were Herenton allies Malone, Brooks, and Sidney Chism), the commission approved Commissioner Steve Mulroy's resolution insisting on January 31st as an absolute deadline for Bass Pro Shop to put up or shut up on its bid for The Pyramid. (See "In the Bluff," p. 10.)