Politics » Politics Feature

Nashville Shenanigans Cause Shelby County Budget Grief



Don't imagine that what goes on in the back rooms of the state Capitol in Nashville doesn't directly impact the fate of local governments and livelihoods hundreds of miles away.

In some ways, this is obvious: A case in point was when the state Senate's Republican majority, in the wee hours of last Thursday night, long after they'd sealed the state budget, contrived to bring out a dormant anti-abortion bill and quickly got a climactic floor vote and final bill passage while Democratic resisters were still, as it were, getting their pants on.

That bill, HB2263/SB2196, bans abortions upon the first sign of a fetal heartbeat (at roughly six weeks after conception), admits of no exceptions in cases of rape or incest, and punishes abortion providers with up to 15 years in jail and a $10,000 maximum fine. It also mandates a process for canceling out the effect of the so-called "abortion pill."

Commissioners Mark Billingsley, Edmund Ford Jr., and Van Turner struggling with budget numbers - at a webinar
  • Commissioners Mark Billingsley, Edmund Ford Jr., and Van Turner struggling with budget numbers at a webinar

Democrats contended the bill, a near-identical version of which was halted the previous year by GOP Senate Speaker Randy McNally, was never printed nor formally put on notice, and that they were told in advance that they had only planned to move legislation that was time-sensitive, related to coronavirus, or necessary to pass the budget.

Clearly, this was a case in which some sort of procedural sleight-of-hand or subterfuge made possible passage of the bill, which owned a cherished spot on the agenda of Republican Governor Bill Lee. And clearly also the effects of passage will be far-reaching and statewide.

But that wasn't the only case in Nashville last week in which suspicious actions taken outside the public eye had palpable effect elsewhere in the state. There is the curious case of the $200 million infrastructure bill. This was a measure, first enacted in March, that provided for aid to each of the state's counties and municipalities, meted out in proportion to their size and population, and restricted to specific infrastructure purposes or projects directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, in the runup to the legislative session's imminent closure, the Senate put the final touches on its version of the state budget and, to deal with what Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) deemed the "dire circumstances" confronting the state's local jurisdictions, removed the limiting restrictions on the money's uses.

This meant, among other things, that the share allotted to Shelby County government, some $7.7 million dollars, which had tentatively been attached by the Shelby County Commission to the construction of a new Juvenile Justice Center, could be freed up for other purposes and used to buttress the county's fund balance or reserve fund to assist the commission, which for months had been locked in an epic struggle to arrive at a balanced budget.

And indeed the commission wasted little time availing itself of the serendipity, voting last week to include the $7.7 million sum in its general fund as it headed into the culminating stage of its own budget process, which had already been one of the most grueling in county history.

But meanwhile the historically competitive streak in the General Assembly's two chambers — a rivalry which, in its way, was as intense as combat between the two political parties — had been activated, transforming the landscape. The state House, preparing its own budget, took a different approach to the $200 million infrastructure fund. It, too, called for the lifting of prescriptions, but it altered the sums to be made available to specific localities.

In the House version, both Memphis and Shelby County were saddled with hard caps of $5 million, the city losing $9.3 million of its original allotment and the county $2.7 million of its. (It could have been worse: At one point, the Shelby County share was actually slated to be reduced to $2 million.)

Ultimately, there would be a conference committee, in which members of each chamber attempted to resolve the discrepancies in the two bodies' outlook on the matter. A member of that committee was House member Mark White, a Republican representing the mixed urban/rural District 83 in southeast Shelby County.

During debate on the altered House allotments, White had been sanguine about the consequences if the House's budget figure should stand. "We'll always take care of Memphis," he said. "We're now getting $5 million that wasn't on the table to begin with. So we're $5 million ahead." 

White said he thought the federal government would end up taking the strings off the COVID-related CARES Act funds it had previously allocated to Memphis and Shelby County, giving city and county an additional source of freed-up money to use, and that it was important meanwhile to use the liberated infrastructure money to take care of the distressed counties of rural Tennessee.

During the resultant conference committee negotiations, however, White, no doubt feeling the sting of local response, busied himself trying to regain as much as possible of the Memphis allotment. The eventual conference report would indicate that Memphis' allotment from the freed-up infrastructure fund would be upped another $5 million, putting its total at $10 million. But, despite some reports indicating that Shelby County would regain its lost $2.7 million, the county would remain under the original $5 million cap. "I got so busy with Memphis I may have overlooked the county," White acknowledged.

Here's the history of the Shelby County infrastructure allotment — $7.7 million in March and initially last week, when the Senate took restrictions off the amount; a reduced amount of $5 million under the initial House cap; and a retained $5 million cap after the conference committee report.

That could be contrasted with the fate of less heavily populated Knox County (456,185 residents compared to Shelby's 937,005), whose original allotment in March and by the Senate last week was $4,108,218. Instead of being capped by the House, Knox's share was actually upped to $5,151,750, in excess of Shelby County's share, and Knox ended up with that amount in the conference committee report. Meanwhile, the city of Knoxville (pop: 187,500) got $4,167,837.

Well, what happened here? One suspects that the Knox County bonanza was not unrelated to the fact that the area is represented in the House by both House Speaker Cameron Sexton and House Speaker Pro Tem Bill Dunn. Shelby County is not so well represented among the potentates.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch: Shelby County's commissioners, who had already endured numerous all-day-into-the-evening budget sessions, would be sweating out a last nine-hour marathon session on the county budget on Monday night. Hours were spent trying to peel away expenses of far less than $2.7 million (the amount lost in the county's infrastructure allotment) to balance the budget.

One of the proposed suggestions was to increase the shift time of county jailers from eight hours to 12 hours. The commissioners surrendered half the amount of the $2.6 million allocated to them for community enhancement grants. Money was shaved from the county's parental leave fund. The Juvenile Justice Center and the Med (Regional One) were forced into a Solomonic competition for the same reduced sums. The county's elected officials all saw reductions in their departmental budgets, some of them down to the bone. The administration of County Mayor Lee Harris saw itself as disproportionately penalized.

"We're robbing Peter to pay Paul," county CAP Dwan Gilliom observed trenchantly.

As the clock ticked from Monday night into Tuesday morning, after hours of reaching for cuts of $50,000 here, $100,000 there, the commissioners finally emerged with a Shelby County budget for fiscal year 2021 of $1,446,275,764. It did so with the use of $9.5 million from the county's reserve fund, and with numerous divisions of county government perched on the cusp of unsustainability.

It should be said that the commissioners did not avail themselves of proposed solutions other than the frenzy of budget-cutting. Harris had earlier offered a budget based on an increase in the county wheel tax. This was rejected, and, as late as Monday night, so was a proposal from Commissioner Reginald Milton that the county tax rate be adjusted from $4.05, a figure he said was based on an arithmetic error, and raised to $4.13.

"We're digging a hole to use the earth to fill up another hole, but we still have a hole," Milton said.

That may or may not be the reality. What is unavoidable is that the missing $2.7 million from the legislature made the digging more grueling than it otherwise might have been.

Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.

Add a comment