Politics » Politics Feature

County Commission Continues Budget Battle

Shelby County’s budget process is looking like a shell game.


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There came a moment in Monday's regular public session of the Shelby County Commission when chairman Van Turner attempted to assure his colleagues that all the forthcoming year's budget numbers were in order, including maintenance of a fund balance amounting to no less than 20 percent of the total budget — the amount regarded as sufficient to ensure solvency.

After all, Turner remarked, there was the matter of $2.5 million that was "going back in" to the 2020 budget at some point. That would offset the impact of several new expenditures approved by the commission on Monday, including $2.5 million (or $2.4 million; the exact amount remained somewhat hazy) required for the county's obligations under a joint pre-K program undertaken with Memphis city government.

The commissioners present seemed to know what Turner meant, though there was considerable confusion in the audience at large. In the course of an extended recess, during which much head-scratching occurred among media members and other spectators, things became a little clearer: As members of the commission and Mayor Lee Harris had been informed by county attorneys during executive session, a piece of litigation — its exact nature unspecified publicly — was about to be resolved in favor of the county.

Further prodding revealed that representatives of the city had evidently assured county officials that a settlement, in which the aforementioned $2.5 million would be made over from city to county, was imminent, though the deal was not yet done.

If this informaton seems uncertain to the point of being opaque, that circumstance is due to what amounts to a vow of omerta imposed upon county officials regarding the nature of the aforesaid litigation.

In any case, this "trust-us" premise is at the heart of what would appear to be a somewhat conditional resolution of both the county property-tax rate (at the current figure of $4.05 per $100 of assessed value) and the planned operating and capital budgets for fiscal 2020.

There's an interesting ambiguity involved in the tax-rate figure, as well. As Shelby County Trustee Regina Morrison Newman revealed at Monday's meeting, the $4.05 rate was arrived at last year by error, as the result of some faulty arithmetic (including double-counting of expected revenue amounts). Responsibility for the error was not assigned, though it occurred on the watch of former County Mayor Mark Luttrell and former Trustee David Lenoir.

Erroneous or not, the same tax rate is being continued, though, as Commissioner Reginald Milton keeps insisting (and did so again Monday), an "adjustment" is clearly in order. One impediment has been the adamant opposition to a perceived tax increase on the part of the commisson's five Republicans and Democrat Edmund Ford Jr. — enough opposition to forestall the charter-ordained eight votes needed, especially since Mayor Harris is also reluctant on the score.

The like-mindedness of Ford and Harris on this point was in contrast to some ill feeling that has flared between them of late — and did so again on Monday when Ford publicly castigated the mayor for remarks made on a weekend television show blaming previous disagreements between the two on the fact that Harris had achieved his electoral victories by defeating members of the extended Ford family.

"Don't use any member of my family as backup when you don't have answers," Ford said. "I can't respect you." Harris did not respond right away, but at the end of Monday's meeting, which ended around 10 p.m., he made a point of praising the political Ford family and denying any animosity toward its members.

All of that, however, was but a sideshow to the budget turmoil, which, almost certainly, will require a revisit and perhaps a revision.

Kudos: To 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen for presiding over an eye-opening panel of the House Judiciary Committee last week on a question that won't go away — that of potential reparations to African-American citizens for the effects of slavery and Jim Crow laws. Cohen, chairman of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, was the sponsor, years ago, of a House resolution expressing an overdue apology for slavery.

To Sidney Chism, for another installment last week of his annual summer political picnic, this one attracting numerous political candidates, including mayoral foes Jim Strickland and Willie Herenton.

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