Politics » Politics Feature

A Worldview of Sorts

The county commission's conservatives explain their motives in trying to strip Mayor Luttrell's budget.



The suburban conservatives on the Shelby County Commission do not quite have what the German academics of the 19th century called a "Weltanschauung" (loosely translated: a "worldview"), but they are on the way to developing one.

Midway through a lengthy debate Monday on the twin issues of a budget for fiscal 2013-14 and a county tax rate for that period, Commissioner Heidi Shafer, a District 1 Republican who represents areas of both Memphis and Shelby County but who aligns most of her views with those of her GOP colleagues from the outer-county District 4, made a startling proposal.

Rather than raising the tax rate from $4.02 to $4.38 ($4.42 for the suburbs — the difference representing a rural-school-bond levy in 2003 to pay for a new Arlington High School) and adding money to the budget to pay for public-school and other expenses, as called for by county mayor Mark Luttrell, Shafer moved that the commission instead pare Luttrell's proposed budget by a full 15 percent.

Such a plan, objected county CAO Harvey Kennedy, Luttrell's chief aide, would require the elimination of "about 870 funded and filled positions," including many in "public safety and criminal justice," and would "decimate county government."

Said Kennedy: "I don't think you'd recognize what was left."

Unfazed, Shafer continued. What she had not heard, she said, was any consideration given to the idea of "spending less," which would be a routine response for a private business in a financially straitened circumstance. "Breaking down some of the bureaucracy?" she said. "Absolutely! We keep feeding the beast."

District 4 commissioner Wyatt Bunker, who seconded Shafer's motion, then weighed in with a protestation that indeed such cuts could be made without compromising the necessities of government. Every year, he said, the proponents of a larger budget would conjure up a situation of "bare bones" requiring "desperate measures" — merely scare tactics, according to Bunker.

This was too much for District 2 commissioner Walter Bailey, the venerable African-American Democrat who has campaigned long and hard in the course of his several terms for the uses of government in easing the burden for society's lesser favored.

Everything he had just heard was "empty rhetoric, conservative grandstanding," he said. And he demanded: "What school of economy do these folks come from?"

Though somewhat taken aback, Shafer quickly supplied an answer. "Von Hegel," she said.

Von Hegel? Puzzled, a reporter queried her by text. Did she mean Hegel, the 19th-century German historian?

Ultimately, Shafer corrected herself. She had meant to say "Hayek," she said.

This would be Friedrich Hayek, sometimes "von Hayek," an Austrian, later British, philosopher, whose book The Road to Serfdom had been a holy book of small-government conservatives in the mid-20th century, right up there with Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative.

Shafer's proposal for a 15 percent cut was rejected, as was a fallback proposal for a scaled-back version of the Luttrell budget that would substitute for his 36-cent tax increase a 6-cent increase that would have cut the mayor's budget by some $9.6 million.

Shafer had one more card up her sleeve, however: Her proposal to cut a mere $15,000 from the budget, this being the amount spent on providing lunches for commission members, staffers, and county bailiffs on meeting days.

At the suggestion of District 5 commissioner Steve Mulroy, a Democrat, the amount was halved to $7,500, which would eliminate the lunches made available preceding and during the full commission's biweekly Monday public meetings but leave untouched those prepared for the Wednesday committee sessions, which, as Mulroy noted, tended to stretch from early morning until mid- or late afternoon.

But the vote to cut even that amount failed to win a majority, with a 6-6 result — giving Shafer and her allies on the commission and in the auditorium a talking point for the rest of the meeting. As another District 4 commissioner, Terry Roland, would put it, those who voted for what he saw as a spendthrift budget injurious to taxpayers would "take food out of the public's mouth, [but] not out of your own mouth."

Finally, the Luttrell budget and tax-rate proposals were approved — minus only $300,000 which had been allocated for federal monitors of reforms mandated for Juvenile Court by the U.S. Department of Justice. Commissioner Henri Brooks, the inner-city Democrat who had called for the DOJ to investigate the court in the first place, moved to eliminate the monitors, essentially on grounds that the feds had appointed them without local input.

She had no trouble making that stick with a majority on a body which had been virtually unanimous in resenting being shut out of the negotiations on the ultimate agreement between the court and the DOJ.

Left intact, despite some recent proposals to prune them, were some $630,000 in grants to various nonprofit agencies, notably the Community Alliance for the Homeless, which had several advocates and commissioners speaking for it on Monday. Mulroy noted that the grants were instances of outsourcing, a practice generally favored by conservatives, and argued that the incidence of homelessness had been significantly diminished through efforts of the alliance.

Though on the losing side, Bunker had the last word.. With the grave air of a scientist announcing his findings — in this case regarding what he called "the vicious cycle of destruction" — Bunker said, "We have such a large population of poor people that they've elected people that have grown up through poverty situations and bureaucratic situations and are making decisions who have either benefited and/or never learned to manage money on their own and are now in charge of a budget of over a billion dollars."

These are people, said the commissioner, who "have never been able to manage their personal business."

Bunker's view, frequently enunciated, is that social services need to be performed for those in need of help but should be done by faith-based organizations or volunteer charities or (perhaps) nonprofits.

Another version of the same philosophy was provided early in the debate Monday by Roland, who asserted that he'd be happy to pay for social-help programs himself, if he could, proclaiming, "I love people, but at the end of the day I have to do what's best for the taxpayers."

As for arguments by Bailey, Mulroy, and James Harvey on the need for government to see to the needs of all citizens, Roland scoffed, "Liberal, left-wing rhetoric, that's all that is!"

Monday's vote was the first of three required readings. The third and final will occur on July 8th.

• An article in Ohio's Cleveland Plain Dealer this week cites new challenges to the bona fides of Memphis businessman/entrepreneur Brad Martin as leader of an investigation into alleged fraudulent dealing by the Pilot Corporation of Tennessee.

Martin is scheduled to become interim president of the University of Memphis on July 1st. Currently chairman of the RBM Venture Company, he is the former CEO of the Saks Corporation and is a board member of Pilot Flying J, an arm of Pilot Corporation. As such, he was recently named by Pilot CEO Jimmy Haslam to head an internal investigation into charges that Pilot kept millions of dollars in fuel rebates owed to trucking companies that were clients of the corporation. Haslam is the brother of Tennessee governor Bill Haslam.

The internal investigation parallels one initiated by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission.

In an article published on Monday, the Plain Dealer quotes several individuals acquainted with an earlier fraud investigation by the SEC — this one of Saks at a time when Martin was that corporation's head.

From the Plain Dealer article: "'At the very least there was a cloud over his tenure at Saks,' said Christopher Ideker, a forensic accountant who has participated in many audit committee investigations for companies. 'To me, you have a guy calling the shots on an investigation about stealing from customers who was investigated for stealing from vendors. That seems pretty straightforward.'"

Ultimately, Saks admitted no wrongdoing but settled claims resulting from the allegations for $60 million. Martin, who left his position at Saks within months of the settlement, was never charged. As the Plain Dealer noted, "His brother Brian Martin, Saks' general counsel, as well as two other executives, were fired over the scandal, though also never charged."

Martin was traveling abroad and could not be reached for comment at press time.

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