Opinion » Editorial

Hard Numbers, Good Sense



If the leaders of the suburban municipal-school movement, who have now cleared the referendum hurdle for the second — and presumably last — time, had listened to Shelby County Commission chairman Mike Ritz's address to the Memphis

Rotary Club on Tuesday, they would either have heard more of what, to them, is Ritz's red-flag rhetoric or they would have listened to his facts and learned something.

That goes for Memphians, too, who would have learned, for example, that, if they had consented last year (as they did not) to a de facto referendum of their own, one for a half-cent increase in the sales tax, some $30 million would have been raised to go toward school funding, obviating the necessity for the extra 6-cent property tax — earmarked for the schools — that county mayor Mark Luttrell needed to fund the 2013-14 county budget, at a tax rate of $4.38, up from last year's $4.02, based on that period's higher prevailing property appraisals.

(Technically a county referendum, last year's sales-tax vote was confined to Memphis residents and residents of unincorporated Shelby County, inasmuch as residents of six outer-county municipalities had already approved a half-cent sales tax add-on for themselves, maxing out to pay for their intended independent schools.)

As for the aforesaid suburbanites, they would surely have been displeased to hear Ritz (a Germantown resident) prophesy out-of-control and unforeseen expenses for the forthcoming municipal school systems. He pointed out that Germantown — financially one of the better-endowed suburbs, to say the least — might see a "taxpayer revolt" once the city's residents realize that, however the forthcoming debate over transfer of existing infrastructure goes, A) they will have to build new schools to accommodate the 8,000 students they need to finance their system (and that's if they win a contest with the Unified System over who gets those students); and B) Germantown taxpayers by themselves will have to foot the bill for fully half of those 8,000 students — the half, including many from low-income communities, who live outside the city limits.

And there is the matter of the infrastructure. Ritz foresees difficult negotiations between the suburbs and the Unified Shelby County School board over the transfer of school properties when the time comes for the new suburban systems to start up. If they do start up, that is. Ritz professed a concern that "the three smaller suburbs" (that would be Arlington, Lakeland, and Millington) will see that, fiscally speaking, they may have gotten in over their heads.

The outgoing commission chairman addressed other realities as well — one example being that of a much-coveted new convention center that might enable Memphis to stay within hailing distance of Nashville, which recently had a grand opening for its own giant new megalopolitan state-of-the-art convention complex. As part of an accelerated program of speakers on topical issues, the Rotarians in Ritz's audience had heard much discussion of late about that subject. Ritz may have doused their hopes a bit when he noted that revenues which Nashville and other cities have used to finance such enormous projects — hotel-motel taxes and diversion of sales-tax revenues — are already dedicated to payment of FedExForum bonds and to a downtown Tourist Destination Zone project, respectively.

Much of what Ritz had to say was not good news, but there was something refreshing to hear a politician doling out hard numbers and common sense.

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