Two Shelby County Commissioners with about a year left in office see an afterlife of issues with the county budget and $4.38 property tax rate the commission approved earlier this month.
But Wyatt Bunker and commission Chairman Mike Ritz differ on what the tax rate decision in particular says about the financial direction of county government and what taxpayers can bear.
“This is not a Cadillac operation Downtown,” Ritz said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.”
“I would agree,” Bunker replied. “But it costs us like a Cadillac operation Downtown. That’s my objection.”
But Ritz said county government has obligations it can’t walk away from that are unique to any other local government in the state.
“Shelby County is what it is. Memphis is the biggest part of it,” he added. “Shelby County government is running some pretty big operations … and they are not cheap to operate.”
The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video, www.memphisdailynews.com.
On both sides of the Memphis borders, Bunker said he hears from taxpayers who are frustrated by what they see as “subsidizing” those on the other side.
“I think it frustrates them especially when they hear the people in the suburbs need to pay their fair share,” Bunker said of suburbanites. “They were paying over $20 million more in property taxes for schools than what they were getting out of schools.”
Ritz said by voting to form their own school districts, suburban taxpayers are still paying twice.
“Probably most of the citizens in the suburbs don’t realize they are going to continue to pay county property taxes for the unified school system,” he said. “They are going to be paying for two school systems.”
Ritz and Bunker also disagree fundamentally on the role of the commission in budget decisions.
Ritz contends it was up to those opposed to the $4.38 rate to suggest cuts to realign the county government budget to be funded by the lower tax rate they favored.
“We did have a good number of people who voted no against the budget almost without exception every time,” Ritz said. “What we didn’t have was a togetherness from that group as to what the administration should respond with. The administration was never put in a position to essentially bring forward something else.”
Bunker said it isn’t the commission’s job to identify specific areas for cuts.
“We don’t have support staff, financial staff, that are behind us that delve into a billion dollar budget and tell people exactly what needs to be cut,” Bunker said. “What we are charged with is to tell (the administration) how much the people can afford over a 12-month period. … We say yes or no until we’re satisfied. They try to dump that responsibility on us.”
But without the 6-cent tax hike that the commission approved, Ritz said Bunker and other opponents of the $4.38 tax rate wouldn’t have approved of the cuts to make a $4.32 tax rate work.
“We know … that if we had cut $10 million from the county’s budget to get to the $4.32 tax rate … that half the cuts would have come from the Sheriffs Department in the form of at least 200 deputy sheriffs,” Ritz said. “I don’t believe there’s a snowball’s chance that commissioner Bunker and others on the commission who were advocating the cut were going to stand by and watch that happen.”
Ritz continued to question how suburban government, especially the smaller ones, will pay for separate school systems without raising their own property tax rates or seeking more county funding for their school systems.
“They raised the property tax 30 percent. We raised ours less than 10,” Ritz said by way of comparing tax hikes this year in Germantown and Shelby County government. “The schools would be an add on to that. It’s a pretty serious note.”
Bunker, who is running on the September ballot for mayor of Lakeland and is a former Shelby County Schools board member, said a Lakeland school system wouldn’t have the front office expenses larger school systems come with.
“I think if we spend accountably, we build our reserves, I think we can do with what we’ve got,” he added. “That being said, we are going to have to pool with Arlington to provide those resources for those children.”
A common superintendent for the Lakeland and Arlington school systems is a possibility Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman has also acknowledged recently.