Change of Course

The County Commission signals a readiness to review the status quo.



Two issues before the Shelby County Commission at its regular Monday meeting indicated that the body, faced with a worsening budget crunch and other discontents, may be ready for a sea change or two.

One controversy welled up over what, in other times, would have been the routine nomination of two members to the Memphis and Shelby County Development Corporation -- Frank Ryburn, an existing member, and Tony Thompson III.

But Commissioner Julian Bolton objected to the appointments -- maintaining that the quasi-public corporation had been profligate in extending PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) arrangements to a variety of industries and that this, at a time of severe budgetary pressures on schools, jails, and other county-funded services, was costing taxpayers "hundreds of millions of dollars" unnecessarily.

Kelly Rayne, legal adviser to Mayor A C Wharton, insisted that the mayor's office was sensitive to such concerns and was conducting a "pilot study" to review the procedures for granting PILOT arrangements -- especially with regard to shifting the emphasis from suburban sites to potential in-city businesses and industries. "We wanted to be more comprehensive and less piecemeal about it," Rayne said.

"We don't need a study to make a decision," Bolton objected. "With just a cursory review, you will see it's out of whack." In the time it took to conduct such a study, he said, another "50 or 60 million" taxpayer dollars would be expended. "That's how fast it's going."

Vice Chairman Tom Moss, acting as commission chairman in the absence of current chair Michael Hooks, expressed agreement with Bolton's concerns but suggested that holding up on the renomination of Ryburn and the nomination of Thompson would not have any effect on the process.

Ultimately, in two close votes, the commission upheld the two appointments, but the unexpectedly spirited discussion that had welled up indicated that a full review of PILOT procedures, long held out as bait to attract and keep industry, was in store.

As David Lillard, generally a supporter of PILOT arrangements and a supporter of the appointment resolution, said: "Let's roll up our sleeves and get into it."

The other issue was a vindication of sorts for John Willingham, a Republican member who, like Democrat Bolton (whose objections to the PILOT procedures he shares), has often found himself on the short end of controversial votes but keeps trying.

For some time, Willingham, whose 2002 election owed much to his opposition to the deal that brought the NBA Grizzlies to Memphis and got the FedExForum built, has been struggling to subject that contract to a full review.

On Monday, he got the commission's backing with an 11-0 vote in support of a resolution by himself and Walter Bailey, another longtime skeptic concerning the complex of arrangements surrounding the Forum and the Grizzlies.

The resolution would begin a grievance procedure, allowable under terms of the Grizzlies' contract with the city and county, by which certain issues -- financial ones and other matters, notably that of the no-compete-clause which gives the Grizzlies' management de facto control over bookings at other local arenas -- might be renegotiated.

For his pains, Willingham has drawn some add-on hurt in the form of declared opponent Mike Carpenter, governmental liaison for the Associated Builders and Contractors. In Nashville this week to promote a bill favored by his association, Carpenter was apprised of Willingham's frequently voiced -- and evidently quite sincere -- question: "Why does Mike Carpenter want to run against me?"

Asked about that, Carpenter laughed. "I want a seat on the commission," he answered. Then, more earnestly, he proceeded to spell out some other motives: "I just disagree with John about a number of things. He was elected on a no-tax platform and promptly started voting for taxes. He proposed a payroll tax, he voted for a property tax increase, and he voted to support a real-estate transfer tax."

(The latter tax -- which requires action by the General Assembly -- was endorsed by 10 other members of the commission, more or less to back up Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, its chief sponsor, and was forwarded to Nashville without a dissenting vote.)

Carpenter said he was also opposed to Willingham's ideas of turning The Pyramid into a casino.

The challenger has a fund-raiser scheduled for next month that has some name sponsors. Among them: consultant David Perdue, longtime GOP eminence Lewis Donelson, former Republican chairman David Kustoff, city councilman Brent Taylor, and legislators Paul Stanley and Bubba Pleasant.

• Presuming that Marilyn Loeffel, the soon-to-be-term-limited county commissioner, is still interested in running next year for Shelby County clerk, she won't have a free run at it.

Debbie Stamson, wife of Juvenile Court clerk Steve Stamson and a longtime employee of the county clerk's office, announced this week that she will run for the clerk's job, held by Jayne Creson, who has said she will retire.

Stamson's election next year, if it comes to pass, would create the first husband-and-wife pair of clerks to serve in Shelby County government.

• Governor Phil Bredesen last week announced the appointment of Memphis attorney Jerry Stokes to succeed the recently retired George H. Brown Jr. as Circuit Court judge in division 6. Stokes, who has practiced law since 1981 with the Stokes, Wilson and Wright law firm, has also worked since 1998 as a part-time assistant divorce referee for Shelby County. In 2003-2004, he received the highest rating among divorce referees (8.9 out of 10) in a survey commissioned by the Memphis and Shelby County Bar Association. •

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