Like probably every other publication in town, as well as any other Memphians and Shelby Countians who have some degree of involvement with or interest in public affairs, we are on retired citizen Joe Saino's mailing list. Saino, whom we made the subject of a Flyer profile some years ago, keeps a close eye on how taxpayer money gets spent, and he is generous about sharing his research, which almost always runs to the ways that we (and that "we" is our governments) are spending — or have committed to spend — too much, without taking the necessary steps to properly fund our liabilities.
Saino is much like Tennessee's junior U.S. senator, Bob Corker, in that he not only frets about public spending, he itemizes his anxieties and, as often as not, proposes solutions that are equally itemized. And, further like the senator, who most recently vented his concerns about overspending at the national level at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Memphis two weekends ago, Saino sees himself as a voice in the wilderness, a prophet of sorts who isn't being sufficiently listened to.
The initials OPEB ("other post-employment benefits") are a familiar element of the public dialogue these days, and Saino, as much as anybody, is responsible for raising public awareness about them. In essence, OPEBs — which include such benefits to retirees as life insurance, health care, and disability payments — were at the root of some painful budget decisions made in city government over the past couple of years (and will figure significantly in this year's city elections). And they have now come front and center in discussions concerning the budget of Shelby County government for the fiscal year 2015-16.
County government bears the brunt of expenditures for local public education, and Shelby County Schools (SCS) has just presented the county a bill for a $14.9 million budget increase that has to do — largely or at least significantly — with the OPEB matter. At least, that's the opinion of Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, who saw fit to scold the SCS administration for ignoring the need to limit OPEB expenses while county government, voluntarily, and Memphis city government, more or less involuntarily but realistically, had been dealing with the issue in recent years. Luttrell went so far as to advise SCS, "Maybe you need to look at layoffs."
In budget committee meetings last week, the Shelby County Commission provisionally agreed to adopt an administration plan that cut the SCS request in half, but that won't be set in stone until the next public commission meeting of June 1st, if at all. And if it does get final commission approval, the SCS board and administration will have little choice but to make some difficult decisions of their own. A day after the commission reached its preliminary conclusions, an SCS board meeting on Thursday took up the OPEB matter but reached no firm conclusions about what to do.
Should SCS join an ongoing suit by the Chattanooga school system against state underfunding to localities of BEP (Basic Education Program) funds? Of course, it should. But that's long-term. Hopefully, school officials can reach a Solomonic decision on OPEB cuts by themselves — before June 1st, if possible; before July 1st, by necessity.