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For a brief moment, at least locally, the cryptic phrase “adequate facilities fee” has replaced “weapons of mass destruction” as a neologism of note. Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton used the phrase (to describe a potential revenue-generating mechanism) in making a preliminary budget presentation to members of the county commission Wednesday, and, though no member of the commission saw fit to quiz the mayor about the term then, several ‘fessed up later on that they weren’t sure what it meant. Asked about the A.F.F. (adequate facilities fee) later on, Wharton acknowledged that it had characteristics in common with an impact fee on developers (a potential levy which the mayor has so far been very, very circumspect about), but whereas proceeds from the latter could be allocated only in the geographic area of the project it was assessed upon, those from an adequate facilities fee could be distributed countywide, without such a limitation, the mayor said. The premise was the same: Developments cause governmental infrastructure (sewers, utility lines, schools, etc. ) to follow in their wake, and taxpayers should be assisted in paying for these by fees upon the developers who make them necessary. Wharton had told the commission he and his office would be lobbying the Tennessee General Assembly for legislation enabling the imposition of the new fee in Shelby County. “There might be caps on it, having to do with the costs of the structures involved, and other factors. We’ll have to see,” the mayor said after his meeting with the commission, reckoniong that an adequate facilities fee could raise “$4 to $7 million” in annual revenues for the county. If it comes to pass, the new tax would thereby put a few drops back into a bucket that would run dry by a projected $26 million deficit in figures he and county finance director James Huntzicker presented to the commission Wednesday. That gap will have to be made up by some combination of new revenues and reduced expenditures, but Wharton, who preternaturally likes to keep his cards close to the vest, remained somewhat oblique about specific remedies. After the presentation, commissioners and reporters were scratching their heads and asking each other whether, as seemed the case, Wharton had pledged to rely on attrition rather than outright employee dismissal in downsizing county government staffs. There was no doubt, however, that the mayor spoke of imposing an indefinite freeze on hiring, as well as a freeze on purchases -- except “essential” ones, a category that could turn out to be problematic in determining. And, while the exact nature and amount of tax increases for the coming fiscal year were left hanging, the mayor’s budget overview, passed out at the meeting, floated what some heard to be a 35-cent tax increase and suggested that further increases might be necessary in 2004 to fund the succeeding four years. On one subject the mayor was quite firm: “Nothing is sacrosanct” in the current depressed fiscal environment. That would seem to apply to the continued suspension of county grants to a variety of non-profit agencies (which Wharton mentioned), to the lapsing of year-to-year employee/consultant contracts (which he didn’t mention but which are the subject of feverish gossip in county offices), and to capital improvement outlays, which have been rising steadily in recent years but which would decline annually over the next five years, according to a table submitted to the commission.

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