Wednesday is Day of Reckoning for Shelby County Commission

Members in last-ditch effort to set tax rate; consensus building for $4.32.

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As members of the Shelby County Commission prepared to meet for their normal committee sessions on Wednesday, Item Number One on the agenda was that of the county tax rate for fiscal 2013-14.

Scheduled to be taken up bright and early by the Commission’s budget committee, the tax-rate issue experienced a surprise unraveling last week when, on third and final reading of County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s proposed $4.38 tax rate, two Commission Democrats who had previously supported that rate defected and voted no, along with five of the Commission’s Republicans (all save outgoing chairman Mike Ritz).

The two Democrats were Justin Ford and new chairman-elect James Harvey, whose announced conversion to the ranks of tax-rate opponents may have influenced chairmanship voting, which took place the same day. A third Democrat, Sidney Chism, has consistently abstained from voting for the tax rate, out of concern for conflict-of-interest charges lodged against him by Commissioner Terry Roland, a GOP opponent of the proposed tax rate.

Roland has made an issue of the fact that Chism’s day care center is the recipient of some county funds and that Chism had previously not disclosed that circumstance.

If even one of those three Democrats had voted yes last week, along with chairman Ritz and fellow Democrats Walter Bailey, Melvin Burgess, Henri Brooks, and Steve Mulroy, it was generally supposed that Republican Commissioner Steve Basar was a yes vote in reserve.

Basar and what would appear to a solid majority of commissioners, including all of those who voted for Luttrell’s tax-rate proposal last week and defectors Ford and Harvey, are thought to be cohering behind a substitute tax-rate proposal of $4.32, the amount of the county’s certified tax rate as determined by the state.

The certified tax rate is a technical figure representing the rate necessary to raise the same amount of revenue as the previous year. The 2012-13 rate, which preceded a new county-wide property assessment reflecting dramatically lowered values, was $4.02.

Ritz, who will remain at the Commission’s helm until Harvey begins his one-year term in September, said he thinks the Commission will enact the $4.32 rate on the expectation that no funds will be cut from the currently approved education budget and that an anticipated $9.6 million reduction will come entirely from the county’s general fund.

That would leave intact the 6-cent increase in Luttrell’s budget for school funding, expected to generate an additional $20 million or the newly merged city-county school system..

“We can live with that,” said Billy Orgel, chairman of the Shelby County unified school board.

Ritz said that, if necessary, the Commission might hold special meetings in advance of its next scheduled public meeting next Monday in order to expedite passage of a new tax-rate formula.

For the record, the Commission has already approved an operating budget of some $1. 2 Billion, which includes approximately $388 million for the schools. The total school budget, which draws on county, state, federal, and foundation sources, also totals almost $1.2 billion.

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