Is there or is there not a centralized IT function in Shelby County government? Or perhaps the question should be: Will there or will there not be such a centralized function, ever?
Those are two basic questions which lingered after the County Commission's passage Monday of a resolution sponsored by Commissioner Heidi Shafer allowing county departments to opt in or out of a proposed umbrella system for information technology.
Other material questions resonated in the wake of the commission's action: Did the new mayoral regime of former Sheriff Mark Luttrell drop the ball by offering what appeared to be lukewarm support?
Did the commission's action amount to forfeiting its own responsibility for setting policy and maintaining control of expenditures?
Had Mayor Luttrell and the commission (horror of horrors in the power-centric world of local government) lost face?
Was the outcome of Monday's vote a victory for decentralization and accountability, as Shafer and other supporters of her resolution argued? Or was it instead a concession to chaos, as resolution opponent Commissioner Mike Carpenter argued, or for "turf protection" on the part of the county's elected charter officers, as Commissioner Walter Bailey suggested?
Perhaps most important from a taxpayer's point of view, did the backing off from a centralized IT operation mean the loss of most or all of a projected savings in county expenditures of nearly $5 million — this at a time when the county faces a budget shortfall of $15 to $18 million? And will the action result in a rollback of a potential reduction in the county's property tax rate, as Carpenter suggested?
Time, as they say, will tell. Or, in another time-honored phrase, that of the 17th-century poet John Donne: "Never send to ask for whom the bell tolls/ It tolls for thee." That's you, taxpayers.
The Race Is On ...
And not to the top, either. Even as Memphis City Schools and the Memphis City Council gird for a final showdown on the issue of city funding for MCS, another conflict between public entities — one even more far-reaching in its consequences for local government and education — is suddenly upon us.
Encouraged by election results which suggest a friendly attitude from the 2011 Tennessee legislature, officials of Shelby County Schools seem bound and determined, once more, to seek legislation creating a special school district for the county schools. Fearful that the favorable funding ratio conferred on city schools by the currently operative ADA (Average Daily Attendance) formula would thereby be scuttled, MCS board members are threatening a nuclear option of their own: to surrender the MCS charter, thereby forcing countywide school consolidation.
Should both initiatives go forward, the two systems would be in a race — SCS to get immediate legislative approval in January, avoiding delaying tactics in committee; MCS to vote out their own charter and schedule a quick voter referendum approving the action.
Sensing the dangers inherent in this game of chicken, state senator Brian Kelsey has called for compromise. We second the motion.