In these fractious times, especially where government is concerned, it isn't every day that you find examples of bona fide good-faith bargaining. The art has largely vanished at national levels, where the two political parties barricade themselves against each other and throw unyielding invective back and forth. And it isn't exactly omnipresent at the level of state government, either — as witness the month-long impasse between Governor Phil Bredesen and the legislature's majority Republicans over the issue of the coming fiscal year's budget.
Stalemate of that sort seemed entirely possible, too, when members of the Shelby County Commission sat down last Friday to complete work on this year's county budget. There were several areas of disagreement — all along partisan lines. Republicans wanted both a lowering of the tax rate and a decrease in county personnel. Democrats on the commission resisted both, and interim county mayor Joe Ford not only wanted to get his planned budget, with no tax rate and no layoffs, through the commission, he was also adamant about adding in some improvements on two sections of Holmes Road that had been once rejected by the commission but that he felt committed to.
Lo and behold, instead of deadlocking, the commissioners worked it out. The Democrats (who generally were a vote ahead of the Republicans on specific issues) would not yield on the tax rate, citing cautionary advice from county financial officer Mike Swift. And the Republicans insisted on pruning down personnel costs, as well as paying down as much county debt as possible. In the end, everybody gave. The Democrats, trusting to figures from Republican Mike Carpenter showing that the county had averaged 167 retirees per year, agreed to eliminate funding for 75 jobs. If the number of retirees should come up short — totaling only 50, say — then the reductions would also be contained at that level. By agreement, no public-safety positions would be eliminated. Such savings as would be accomplished by this downsizing would go toward debt service.
Meanwhile, the budget contained a 2-percent increase for county employees, $10 million additional funding for the Med and $5 million for the county Health Department, and Ford would get his Holmes Road projects, as well.
There was even more to the deal, but the point was, it was a deal. And one, moreover, that seemed to satisfy everybody. Even some of the commission's legendary hard cases (who can be found among members of both parties) signed off on it.
Kudos are merited all around — especially to Democrat Steve Mulroy and Republican Carpenter, the two main architects of the arrangement. Ultimately, the county budget proved to be something of an ideal instrument (Ford will no doubt feel entitled to run on it), but the commission's conservatives (not all of whom are to be counted among the Republicans) have earned some bragging rights as well.
The entire affair demonstrated all over again the value of give-and-take, and it proved that all that's needed for an agreement — any agreement — to occur is a simple willingness on all sides to reach one.