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Even as it gets ready to take on what could be a contentious fight over the forthcoming county budget and tax rate, a potential slugfest that all principals hope can be resolved and headed off at a May 7th summit retreat, the Shelby

County Commission and the administration of county Mayor Mark Luttrell remain locked in a power struggle over access to and control over surplus county revenues.

The battle was first joined a couple of budget seasons back, when the commission, long after it had locked its planned expenditures in place, got ex post facto information from the administration regarding a hitherto unannounced $20 million surplus. That discovery was the proximate cause of an ongoing power struggle between commissioners and the administration, one that flared up in several of the matters on the agenda of Monday's public meeting of the commission.

  • Greg Cravens

Pervading the meeting from item to item were two clear and obvious themes, one having to do with the commission's efforts to get its own procedures — and those of county government — in line with recent resolves to eliminate a variety of disparities in hiring, contracting, and employee relations. In the process, the gulf between the commission and the administration widened a bit further.

The first case in point was a dispute that arose over what seemed to be a routine federal pass-through grant awarding just under $2 million to Sasaki Associates, Inc. for "various National Disaster Resilience ... design projects." The question was raised, first from the audience, and then from various commission members, whether sufficient allowance had been made for minority subcontracting on the project. Public Works director Tom Needham repeatedly insisted that the issue was moot and implied broadly that any further delay on awarding the grant might result in its being lost to the county.

Questioning from commissioners, and especially an unrelenting point-by-point interrogation from Commissioner Heidi Shafer, commenting that Needham's reluctance to answer was "yet another case of the administration keeping us in the dark," finally elicited the fact that no such ill fate was in store. The commission would end up endorsing the grant — along with an add-on clause prepared by Commissioner Van Turner regarding the minority contracting issue.

There were other matters of similar import involving the question of whether the county was seriously undertaking equality of opportunity with women as well as racial minorities, but the pièce de résistance of Monday's discussion was a resolution that would establish what amounted to a set-aside fund for any unspent surplus — one accessible to and subject to the oversight of the commission. At present, surpluses have been under the exclusive purview of the administration, and county CAO made a point of objecting to the resolution as "unacceptable."

In the final analysis, the matter was referred back to committee, where it may or may not be resolved. Which is to say, the power struggle goes on.


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