The Ritz Maneuver

The county commission’s chairman-elect pulls off a hat trick by proposing a county sales tax hike.

| August 15, 2012
politics_RitxTaxTable.jpg

Shelby County commissioner Mike Ritz — both the commission's chairman-designate and, paradoxically, its leading maverick — pulled off a legislative hat trick on Monday, successfully steering a resolution through the commission that enables a half-cent sales tax referendum proposal on the November 6 ballot.

Ritz (right) and colleague James Harvey brainstorming during debate on Monday - JB
  • JB
  • Ritz (right) and colleague James Harvey brainstorming during debate on Monday
In so doing, Ritz managed multiple one-up-manships — over suburban supporters of municipal school districts; over the city of Memphis; over Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell; and over a looming overall deficit in school financing countywide.

The countywide sales tax proposal, which prevailed by a 7-5 commission vote, takes precedence over the half-cent sales tax referenda passed early this month by several suburban municipalities; it will preempt an identical proposal enacted by the Memphis City Council last month; and it would present the commission with the opportunity to at least partially offset a $60 million shortfall forecast for the soon-to-be Unified School District by the Transition Planning Commission.

Luttrell weighed in during commission debate on Monday, opposing the proposal as "premature," but Ritz purportedly has in readiness the eighth vote needed to override a mayoral veto. That would be Commissioner Melvin Burgess Jr., who was absent on Monday.

Some icing on the cake for school-merger supporters came from the fact, attested to Monday by assistant county attorney Robert Rolwing, that if the county sales tax proposal makes it to the November ballot, it will be voted on solely by residents of Memphis, unincorporated areas of Shelby County, and Millington, which, alone of the six suburban municipalities with school-oriented sales tax referenda on the August 2nd ballot, had voted no.

(That vote may be misleading, however, as Millington residents have charged that residents of unincorporated Lucy were allowed by error to vote on the city referendum, which failed passage by only three votes. The Shelby County Election Commission has tentatively indicated a willingness to schedule a revote for November, but that issue, too, would be superseded by a county sales tax being on the ballot.)

During a typically agitated commission debate on the sales tax proposal, Commissioner Terry Roland, a famously outspoken Millington Republican and an opponent of the sales tax measure, became vexed enough to hurl some invective at Democrat Steve Mulroy, who, midway during a Roland philippic against the proposal as "an attack on the suburbs," had apparently cracked a smile.

"Here's the thing, Steve," Roland said, changing rhetorical course. "You can laugh if you want to, but you're about as low-down as I've ever seen in my life. ... You're an evil person. You sit there and think all day every day how you can screw people."

Mulroy received this unprecedented verbal abuse with a proud smile, for all the world like one of those Olympic winners we had seen during the previous two weeks receiving a gold medal around the neck. As off-handedly as possible, he professed a resolve to "turn the other cheek."

But in this case, Roland's invective may have been misdirected. Ritz was the one deserving the laurels, for better or worse.

And there was an intriguing back story. During all the rounds of recent voting for the chairmanship of the Shelby County Commission — a process that stretched out over a month and involved literally scores of different tallies — Ritz had employed a simple tactic.

Whenever his own name happened not to be in nomination — which was most of the time — Republican Ritz passed. Inasmuch as the same tactic was being employed by Sidney Chism, a Democrat and the current chairman who was angling for a third term, other candidates — notably Republican Wyatt Bunker and Democrat Henri Brooks — were locked into a stalemate, always a vote or two short of the majority needed for election.

The odds were always stacked against Ritz, it seemed; he was a Republican on a commission that was majority Democratic, but he sided with the Democrats on enough key issues — notably, redistricting and city/county school merger — that he couldn't count on GOP votes. Ultimately, he was able to prevail as the last man standing, being the second choice of enough commissioners on both sides to get a bare majority of seven when all other candidates had repeatedly failed.

What enhanced his chances finally was the very fact that had been his primary obstacle — a habit of trusting his own counsel on key matters, a fact which often has had him riding hobby horses and conducting impromptu seminars, chiefly on fiscal matters. As frustrating as that can be for his fellow commissioners, it has had the side effect of bolstering his credibility.

As his colleagues know, Ritz has been in the public-policy game for a while, with experience in both the private and governmental spheres. He has been the first director of the joint city/county office of planning and development, a bank officer with Leader Federal and Union Planters, a realtor, an investment manager, and an engineer.

Ritz has proved himself willing to be on the short end of 12-1 votes, but he also has an eye for the main chance, and he knows how to put together — or lend himself to — coalitions, as he did royally on Monday, the last public meeting of the commission before he himself becomes its chairman. 

Essentially, this was the same basic coalition that had prevailed on all matters relating to school merger — "the Democrats, plus Ritz," as Ritz himself imagines his fellow Republicans to be thinking. He will utter the phrase with a hint of amusement, or perhaps with an awareness of the irony that he seems to have inherited the mantle of principal GOP dissenter from former Commissioner Mike Carpenter, of whom he had often been critical.

It remains to be seen how the sales tax proposal turns out, but if Ritz and other backers of it are correct that there is an eight-vote commission majority in support of it, and if the voters in their turn approve it, it will have measurable consequences.

Unlike the case of a city sales tax, which would be superseded, at least 50 percent of the revenues raised by a county sales tax increase would, as Ritz noted, have to be allocated to the schools —"all the county schools, including the municipals."

But, according to tables passed out by Ritz on Monday, the county sales tax hike, which would also supersede the already voted-for increases in the suburbs, would reduce by as much as a half the potential sales tax proceeds of Collierville, Germantown, Bartlett, and Millington, while significantly enhancing those of Lakeland and Arlington. If approved by the voters, the tax increase would begin to be levied on countywide sales within 90 days of passage.

The proceeds of the tax, said Ritrz,would amount to "a $30 million arrow in our quiver" — capable of offsetting at least half of tghe aforesaid $60 million shortfall forecast by the TPC.

For the record, those voting "aye" for the sales tax increase on Monday were Ritz, Mulroy, Chism, Brooks, James Harvey, Walter Bailey, and Justin Ford. Those voting no were Bunker, Roland, Chris Thomas, Heidi Shafer, and Brent Taylor.

(NOTE This article has been revised to clarify two points: (1) The reeferendum measure passed by the Commission on Monday does not, as originally stated, require a second or third reading; and (2) Once approved by the voters on November 6, the tax would require no further action by the Commission or any other official body in order to be levied on sales purchases in Shelby County.)

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Comments (74)

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Looks like Mike the RINO is proud to be the new leader of the CC8 who are doing more to drive a massive wedge between urban and suburban interests than Dr. Herenton ever dreamed of. While citizens of Germantown (I'm one) only want local control over neighborhood schools, Mike Ritz and his cronies appear to revel in the complete alienation of the suburbs in every way possible. And interestingly enough, in this instance anyway, he's screwing Memphis as well. Someone needs to pull his chain before the damage becomes permanent.

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Posted by staythirstymyfriends on 08/15/2012 at 12:28 PM

I find it interesting that Mayor Wharton is saying he's going to try to talk to some of the SCC 8 to more or less get them to quit the petty attacks at their suburban commission rivals.

I think that's ultimately what this has come to. The description of Mulroy in this article is really pathetic in my opinion.

Politics is a dirty game, but it should never become personal where you step on the interests of your constituents to take a shot at a personal rival. Memphis doesn't want this county tax. None of the suburbs want this countywide tax. Yet, here you have 8 commissioners pushing for this tax to be countywide, so they have control over it rather than letting each of the individual cities control their portion.

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Posted by GroveReb84 on 08/15/2012 at 1:24 PM

Unfortunately I believe you are right Grove. Somewhere along the line these politicians (if that term even applies to most of these idiots) have become completely consumed with political theater for none other than themselves. If you talk to people, as I'm sure you have, almost every person is beyond fed up with these childish antics. This is beyond pathetic.

No matter what side you may have been on in the beginning of this, everyone needs to unite and vote every single sitting member of the SCC out, every last one of them. They are on the fast track to passing the Christianban legislature as the biggest bunch of assclowns in the state. Hell I say recall them now if it's possible.

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Posted by mad_merc on 08/15/2012 at 2:09 PM

If they put on the referendum " this is a stick it to the suburbs tax" it might have a chance at being approved by voters in Memphis. Otherwise, I doubt Memphians are going to vote themselves a sales tax increase to fund public education when their elected leaders have been telling them all along that the charter surrender would reduce the tax burden on Memphians.

Memphis, you need to elect better leaders!

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Posted by FlyHigh on 08/15/2012 at 2:34 PM

It is also a "stick it to Memphis tax". According to Wharton, Memphis gets 47 million from a local tax but only 27 million from a county tax. Maybe it could be marketed as a "stick it to everybody including yourself" tax.

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Posted by GWCarver on 08/15/2012 at 3:11 PM

Every time I read something about, or listen to Mr Ritz and Mr. Mulroy, the phrase "too clever by half" comes to mind. If they are each as smart as they seem to think they are then they are wasting their time and talent on such a lowly office as county commissioner. Certainly something on the national stage would be more in keeping with their talents.

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Posted by Drift Boat on 08/15/2012 at 4:48 PM

I have known both Steve Mulroy and Terry Roland, personally, long before either of them ever held any elective office and can honestly say that Terry is flat wrong in his characterization of Steve Mulroy.

While I may disagree with them both, from time to time, about politics, Steve Mulroy is one of the most decent, honorable, ethical, compassionate and just plain ol' nice people I have ever had the honor of knowing. I don't have reason to think Terry is really dishonest but doubt many people who know, or have had occassion to be around, him when he's out of the public eye, so to speak, would really consider him to all that decent, honorable or compassionate. In fact, Terry can be quite hateful and, in truth, is a very intolerable person.

For all of his faults, if one considers that Terry is just Terry, listening to him can be amusing. The fact that Steve can smile while Terry is bloviating just goes to show how decent a person Steve really is; people of less character might just want to punch Terry instead of smiling at him (as he, himself, I believe, has threatened to do to Steve and a few other people).

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Posted by Musa on 08/15/2012 at 5:08 PM

Grove,

I told you to look out! You were so busy reminding me and others that it is a mistake to make the General Assembly angry because they could screw us. That, Grove, I was never worried about. Shelby County is a home rule county, there isn't too much the General Assembly can to to Shelby County without doing it to every other county in our class. The state constitution precludes the General Assembly from being able to cram laws down the throat of home rule counties.

As far as will Memphis vote for this tax, I believe it will. If they say it will benefit the new SCS, remember, Memphis does not have its own school district anymore, the people will back it. The people have never turned down a tax increase as long as it is assured of going to the schools.

Wharton, who cares. Memphis no longer has to support the schools, they don't need the money. Also, there will be some strong outside money behind this, Stand for Schools. This money will go, well, it is perceived that it would help implement the TPC reccommendations. The beauty of this is that it will be on the ballot for the November 6 election, heavy african american turnout for Obama.

You see, as long as Shelby County is a home rule county, they will be able to out maneuver you munis in every tax matter that you come up with. Ritz is going to make sure, if you get your msds, that you will have to rely on the one tax that the county can't control, your respective municipal property taxes.

Saying that it is low down is the same thing I said about Norris, Pickler, et al writing the PC01 and the other laws. It is no different. In the scheme of things, there is an old army saying, command saying, shit rolls down hill. In the governmental structure in Tennessee, the state comes first, the counties second, municipals last.

The SCC also has some more surprises in store for the munis. Wait and see.

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 08/15/2012 at 7:01 PM

OTP, you know if Memphis votes for this county sales tax, 20 million of that MOE money you thought you were going to save is going right back to the schools. Plus, you don't really know if the judge is going to eliminate MOE anyway. If I were the judge, I certainly wouldn't let anyone get out of paying their bills just because of a name change. Also, in the not too distant future, county property taxes are going up and Memphis will have to pay those, too. All of that, just to end up right back where you started - MCS II. (I think Millington will end up escaping...)

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Posted by GWCarver on 08/15/2012 at 8:34 PM

Countywide School Board Forums, Attendance:

Bolton HS: Standing room only, approximately 300 parents with numerous questions about where their children would attend school and what programs would be available.

East High School: 60 attended, many of whom where teachers and employees of the MCS System. Less than a dozen comments or questions.

I can think of a number of comments about these attendance/participation numbers, but instead would ask a question. I wonder how many of the 60 at East care one way or the other if the municipalities get their schools?

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Posted by Drift Boat on 08/15/2012 at 8:46 PM

I do not know the answer to your interrogatory, Drift Boat. Why don't you poll the attendees and ask them? They would probably know how they feel about "the municipalities get[ting] their schools" better than any of us commenters here in the Flyer comments section.

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Posted by JHC on 08/15/2012 at 9:23 PM

The CC8 are bunch of baffoons. They are the laughing stock of the state. But maybe that is what they want. I would like to know what they think is Their God given right to stop the MSDs at ALL cost. Tax everyone to death. Cut off your nose to spite your face. People like king Willie and otp say if we do not like it to move. Well you are getting your wish. In 3 years I plan on being a few thousand miles from the stupidity you so called call leadership in Memphis and Shelby county. Can you say Detroit.

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Posted by computerwhiz53 on 08/15/2012 at 10:15 PM

Considering this is the last half-cent available for local taxes under the current law, one would think Memphis would be pulling out all of the stops to go after it. If all of the citizens in the county don't want the county sales tax, it won't happen. If the CC8 keeps putting it up, just vote them out and replace them with someone who is more friendly to the idea of local sales taxes. I think the munis and the city can work together on this.

Of course, eventually the county property tax is going to have to be raised, but we'll all just blame the CC's for that and let them take the political heat, at least the ones who didn't play ball.

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Posted by GWCarver on 08/16/2012 at 12:06 AM

GWCarver,

Once the MCS successfully surrendered its charter, it no longer exist. Memphis has no more connection to it. The AG has already ruled that if Memphis begains anew to give the SCS money, then, it would have to keep doing so, however, if they don't start, they won't have to.

Let the 20 million go to schools. The point that I am making is that you munis, if and when you get your msds, will have to shoulder most of the burden, other than ADA funding, on your own shoulders, property taxes.
Same with the schools. I have talked to some of the BOE Members and they are not about to make a deal on the schools. If they don't, you can file suit if you want to, however, with appeals and so forth, your kids will still need a place to go to school. You won['t be able to get bonds to build schools, at least, as long as there is pending litigation. No one would underwrite them.

I just wonder how much will it cost for the munis to build and maintain their own utility departments? I would not think that they would try to use Mississippi power companies, very expensive, they are not a part of TVA. Just a thought among other things that can be done.

Detroit is going through a cleansing. Property are at rock bottom, before you know it, there will be a resurgence of housing and job activity, it will be like an old fashionioned land-rush. In the old days it used to be called Urban Renewal. You see, Detroit will rebound because the money people can't let this oppotuntiy pass them by to mak large profits off of the land. I have seen it before in any number of cities. It is similar to Memphis, after the yellow fever epidemic. The city was bankrupct and lots of people had died off and fled the city. Along came, Robert Church, a black man, born in Holy Springs, Ms. and loaned the city the money to bail itself out. Memphis came roaring back. The only thing wrong was the way they paid Robert Church back, they got on their feet and promptly ran him out of town. The funny thing about that is, the people out there in suburbia have changed at all from back then.

Computer, don't wait 3 years from now, you can just leave now!

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 08/16/2012 at 12:10 AM

GWCarver,

Make that, the suburbanites have not changed since the yellow fever epidemic.

As far as working with the munis to defeat the tax hike by the county, I DON'T THINK SO, ESPECIALLY AFTER SOME OF YOU HAVE CALLED OUR CHILDREN AND THEIR PARENTS SUCH HORRIBLE NAMES, NOT TO MENTION OUR LEADERS.

Remember, be careful of what comes out of the front of your mouth, for it just might come back to bite you in the ass!

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 08/16/2012 at 12:17 AM

@Merc et. al.:

So, I have to ask; Since the Consolidation vote in 2010, has anything happened to change you mind regarding the wisdom if having the Shelby County Comission being the sole legislative body regarding all things Municipal in Memphis? After all, if Consolidation had occurred, there would be no Memphis City Council or Mayor.

OTP: you need to go back to school. You see, Robert Reed left Memphis during the epidemic just like anyone else that could, and he was not "run out of Memphis" as you've claimed. Memphis cannot prevent the access that the munis have to the power grid. The building issue will not keep schools from opening.

Also OTP, just remember, now that you've made it clear with the words that come out the front of your mouth that your intention is to turn Memphis into the next Detroit, perhaps you too should consider that those words that come out the front of your mouth might just come back to bite you in the ass.

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Posted by Foggy Bottoms on 08/16/2012 at 1:12 AM

JHC,
My "interrogatory", as I'm sure you have already guessed, was rhetorical. We already know the answer. It does make one wonder though, exactly whose interest the County Commission Eight represents?

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Posted by Drift Boat on 08/16/2012 at 5:53 AM

Foggy.

^%The name was Robert Church, not Reed.

You don't even know the history of Memp0his ande Shelby County.

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 08/16/2012 at 6:27 AM

I can tell you that this citizen of Memphis will NOT be voting for a tax increase. I pay enough taxes as it is. Moreover, I was for charter surrender because I was tired of the city increasing my taxes to pay for MCS, and I could care less if the suburbs open their own schools.

The SCC needs to just go away. By the time this whole pi$$ing contest is over, I won't be able to afford a dollar burger at McDonalds.

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Posted by still living in Berclair on 08/16/2012 at 7:11 AM

OTP, you've been wrong on everything you've posted regarding the school debacle. You also posted early on that your reason for supporting the merger was so Memphis could control education in the suburbs - nothing about improving education for those who need it most - the kids in Memphis. You are right in line with the CC8 - incompetent, racist and trying your hardest to turn everything aorund you into a third world ghetto!

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Posted by FlyHigh on 08/16/2012 at 7:26 AM

Flyhigh,

I have been right on the core issue surrounding the school case. Equal representation for Memphis on the BOE, that was the most important thing.

I was for the merger because the school board and leaders should reflect the percentages of African Americans that live in the county.

Studies have shown that the students, in both city and county, that do well will continue to do well. That is a proven fact. So, your premise is false and misleading.

It seems that the ,so-called CC8, is pretty competent; I wish I could say the same for municipal leaders.

The Memphis City Government is no longer in the education business. That is the way we wanted it.

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 08/16/2012 at 7:53 AM

Still living in Berclair,

I understand your frustration. You are one of the poor whites that were not able to get out. Now you know how it feels to be on the short end of the stick.

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 08/16/2012 at 7:56 AM

Robert Reed Church.

Oops!

So, I can't type but you don't even recognize the man's name.

Which of us is it that doesn't know out history?

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Posted by Foggy Bottoms on 08/16/2012 at 8:33 AM

OTP, the city of Memphis government is no longer in the education business because it, like the majority of its constituents, don't want to pay their fair share of the cost to educate THEIR OWN children. Never have, never will!

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Posted by FlyHigh on 08/16/2012 at 8:55 AM

@drift Boat

So, you STILL don't know that the wealthy and powerful locals, in conjunction with some carpet bagging visitors, the ones that wanted only to have to deal with one government body when doing business, are behind all of this?

Really?

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Posted by Foggy Bottoms on 08/16/2012 at 9:11 AM
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