DESPERATE PLEA: Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has called for a roundtable discussion that will include a variety of experts and economists who will weigh in on the county's economic woes. -- Photo By Andy Meek
Shelby County government is almost out of options. That's the message of grim-faced county officials who are in penny-pinching mode and who say they've trimmed the county's operating budget as much as they can.
Officials such as county Mayor A C Wharton Jr. also are worried about the real estate slump and aware that tax hikes can pose a daunting political challenge. So with all that in mind, county officials are trying something new before the administration presents its proposed budget for the next fiscal year to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.
Wharton has called for a roundtable discussion to be held March 10 in the Fogelman Executive Center at the University of Memphis. For two hours that day, some of the county's top finance and political officials will be on hand to talk almost exclusively about the local impact of foreclosures on property tax revenue.
First come, first heard
In an unusual plea last week, Wharton announced the economic summit in almost the same breath as he urged members of the public and the business community to help his administration generate some new ideas to weather the economic storm.
"This is a serious offer. I'm saying this to the public: If you have a notion of where we should cut, and you want any information to flesh out (your idea), give us a call," Wharton said.
The recent financial news hasn't been reassuring. The county's current budget shortfall of $16.5 million - recently revised upward from $14.5 million - is looking like it might grow by another million or two soon. And officials have acknowledged that the effect of the soft housing market on next year's reappraisal is still a big question mark.
The lineup of participants in next month's panel discussion hasn't been finalized yet, but it's nearly done. Among those scheduled to attend are Dr. John Gnuschke, director of the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research/Center for Manpower Studies at the U of M, as well as two or three of his colleagues from within the Sparks Bureau.
Debra Gates, chief administrator in the Shelby County Trustee's office, will be on hand, as well as Shelby County Property Assessor Rita Clark and Deidre Malone, chair of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners' budget committee.
Other roundtable participants will include Jules Wade, executive vice president of the Memphis Area Association of Realtors, members of the county commission and Memphis City Council, county chief administrative officer Jim Huntzicker and Roland McElrath, director of the city of Memphis Division of Finance.
"This will give us, I think, a well-rounded group to look at the issues that are impacted by the real estate problems today," Huntzicker said. "Certainly the level of foreclosures has been increasing, which has an influence on property values and of course that does impact tax collections.
"We'll be looking at what the potential impact of that is, to the extent we can prognosticate, and we'll look forward what the impact might be for 2009 and then into 2010."
Patience is a virtue
Gnuschke said he's not sure yet what kind of information county officials will want the U of M participants to share, but he said his department has data that can be targeted to specific Memphis neighborhoods.
"I'm helping them organize the university folks to be here," Gnuschke said. "We've certainly got some information to share, and we have neighborhood data on foreclosures and things of that nature."
It's not year clear what the format of next month's roundtable will be and how speaking times or opportunities for the public to participate will be divvied up.
The announcement of the roundtable comes on the heels of an appearance last week by several county officials who reiterated Wharton's theme that times are tight, especially given the county's high reliance on property tax revenue to fund expenses.
"We have been and will continue to be good stewards of the taxpayers' dollars," Malone said. "And we ask the taxpayers to be patient with us. Because this budget session will be a rough one."