Politics » Politics Feature

Commission Gets $1.4 Billion “Lean” Budget from Harris


Here's one for you: What’s the difference between $10 million and $13.6 million?
The answer to that is two weeks. In that amount of time, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris raised the floor on what he considered the minimum amount of spending cuts needed in the county’s 2020-2021 budget year.

On April 6th, Harris presented a plan to the Shelby County Commission calling for $10 million in cuts, spread among various departments of county government. In a lengthy discussion of alternative methods of reducing the budget, the commission decided to put off action on Harris’ plan.

In the meantime, the mayor has recalculated and increased the tab for what he considered necessary as a means, without raising taxes, to get the county through the dismal current reality of continued shutdown followed by uncertainty. Actually, Harris did propose a mite of increased taxpayer obligation to accompany his proposed austerity budget revealed on Monday — a “lean and balanced” one of $1.4 billion. The increase would be in the form of a $16.50 raise in the county’s motor vehicle registration tax, a.k.a., the wheel tax.

This is the second time of late that the wheel tax has figured as a component of a plan by Harris to raise revenue. The first time was earlier in the year when the mayor proposed an incremental increase in the wheel tax to finance a new contribution to the Memphis Area Transit Authority in the interests of expanding MATA’s purview.

Objections to that proposal from various commissioners and members of the public — no few of them noting that the wheel tax, as originally conceived, was meant to be restricted to education — scuttled that approach and forced the county to find other means to fund its MATA contribution.

But now it’s baaack! And, as repurposed in the mayor’s budgetary plan, it drew more tentative fire than before, with Republican Commissioner Brandon Morrison, who said she could support the precedent, nevertheless invoking the dread metaphor of “the slippery slope.”

Firmly but a bit apologetically, Harris pointed out that Shelby County’s property tax, sales tax, and hotel-motel tax were all at levels too high to push any further and that the county’s automobile license tax was at an “average enough level among equivalent state fees" that it had the right amount of give.

The two other components of the mayor’s austerity budget involved the aforementioned $13.6 million in cuts and a $6 million borrowing from the county’s fund balance, leaving that reserve fund at the comfortable go-no-lower level of $85 million.

Under probing from various commissioners, Harris defended his recommendations by saying explicitly that without cuts of the sort he proposed, the county would have to go up on taxes — “it’s one or the other” — and might have to impose layoffs, also.

Democratic Commissioner Tami Sawyer voiced a concern that, even should Harris’ cuts be adopted, layoffs might be around the corner.

The mayor’s proposed budget would shore up the target areas of health, public safety, and the social safety net, and it contains several new or protected expenditures — approximately $4 million to fund 30 new additional patrolman positions in the Sheriff’s Department, needed “to patrol the soon-to-be de-annexed areas” of Memphis; a second dose of $8.5 million to Pre-K and early Pre-K, as well as “$427 million for schools, in addition to $33 million in school construction needs this year.”

The budget also contains commitments for funding continued actions for relief and treatment during the COVID-19 epidemic.

The commissioners, who rejected the specifics of a hiring freeze proposed two weeks ago by Harris and resisted at the time by county department heads, adopted one of their own on Monday — a more lenient version that would freeze hiring and spending through June 30th but contained appeal procedures that Harris said made it a “soft freeze” compared to what had been his “hard stop.”

The freeze adopted Monday was sponsored by Republican commissioners Mick Wright and Morrison and got the seven votes needed for passage, with most Democratic commissioners either voting no or abstaining. 

Without being specific, Democratic Commissioner Edmund Ford Jr., a persistent critic of the mayor, compared Harris’ projected plans to some adopted in 2014 by the Memphis City Council on which both he and Harris served. Those financial arrangements would lower the county's bond rating and draw the attention of the state comptroller, Ford said.

In related action on Monday, the commission unanimously approved the county tax rate for 2020-2021 — keeping the rate at its current level of $4.05 per assessed value of $100.

The commission also voted 7-4-1 in favor of a resolution, sponsored by Democratic commissioners Tami Sawyer, Michael Whaley, and Van Turner, requesting Governor Bill Lee to sanction no-excuse absentee voting for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown and expressing a preference for machines allowing voter-marked ballots. That vote was more or less along party lines — 7-5-1, with Democrat Ford joining several Republicans in opposition.

Online Glitches
Commissioners and other personnel participating in the commission’s meetings have by now gotten used to the webinar means of virtual electronic communication, whereby each participant tunes in from separate computer stations and discussions proceed more or less along the lines of Robert’s Rules of Order.
Mark Billingsley - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Mark Billingsley

But their familiarity has another side to it — highly noticeable Monday when a few commissioners allowed their lines to stay open during discussion, thereby picking up traces of private conversation and domestic soundtracks.

That fact, along with technological glitches in the presentation of the Harris budget, complicated the process of communication on Monday and kept GOP commission chair Mark Billingsley calling for order in that regard. 

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