In a sprawling, nearly day-long session of committee meetings, the Shelby County Commission on Wednesday decided to authorize a hiring freeze, finally designated a formula for payments to COVID relief, and began a move for state approval of expanded absentee voting and voter-marked election ballots.
The commission also continued to examine ways of dealing with an ever-growing deficit crisis, one that County Financial Officer Mathilde Crosby now reckons at $39.1 million without “a trimming out of our budget.” County Mayor Lee Harris reinforced Crosby's forecasts with the warning that there was “a real possibility” of layoffs. “We have to assume the worst in some ways,” he said.
The problem, as Commissioner Michael Whaley noted, is complicated by the fact of pending additional expenses for the Sheriff’s Department as it gears up for enlarged responsibilities in portions of Shelby County de-annexed from the City of Memphis, or about to be.
Harris indicated he would be consulting with other county officials this week preparatory to making a major budget statement on Monday, when the commission will be holding its next regularly scheduled public meeting.
The promise of imminent focus on budget matters was uniformly welcomed by Commissioners. “The public understands the severity of the situation,” as Commissioner Brandon Morrison noted. As well, County CAO Dwan Gilliom said he supported “any action to mitigate spending and find a way out of the fiscal situation. The hiring freeze, good until at least June 20th, was proposed by Commissioner Mick Wright.
In a special ad hoc meeting that followed the committee sessions, the commission returned to the matter of appropriating $2 million to assist in responding to the COVID-19 epidemic. The appropriation was rejected in regular session last week when commissioners failed to agree on a source for the funding.
In Wednesday’s reconsideration of the matter, Commissioner Tami Sawyer proposed a direct outlay of the previously considered $2 million for PPE equipment, personnel, and overtime expenses, as well as an additional $500,000 to the Christ Community Health Service to support testing for coronavirus at its outlets. Her resolution passed unanimously.
All of the matters discussed and approved on Wednesday will be revisited for formal approval at Monday’s regular commission meeting.
That includes a resolution on voting matters, proposed by Sawyer Whaley and Van Turner that 1) seeks an executive order from Governor Bill Lee to allow expanded absentee voting in light of the ongoing pandemic; and 2) urges again, as the commission has already done once, that machines allowing voter-marked paper ballots be purchased to replace the Diebold machines currently in use.
That resolution received a favorable recommendation on a vote of 7 for, 3 opposing, and 1 abstaining.