Commission Votes Down $4.38 Tax Rate

By Bill Dries

Shelby County Commissioners voted down a $4.38 county property tax rate Monday, July 8, in a decision that could reopen the county’s operating budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

At the least, the commission vote means it will be mid August at the earliest before the commission sets a tax rate. But if the commission lowers the tax rate from $4.38, it would force reconsideration of a county operating budget that is based on that higher tax rate.

The commission approved the budget in June.

The proposed tax rate failed Monday on a 5-7 vote.

Commissioner Sidney Chism recused himself, as expected, because of a day care center he and his wife own. Commissioner Melvin Burgess, who works for the consolidated school district of which the county is the sole source of local funding, read a disclaimer of his employment with the school district and voted for the tax rate. That was also expected.

The surprises in the vote total were Democratic commissioners James Harvey and Justin Ford. Both voted no.

Ford didn’t take part in the commission debate before the vote.

Harvey said he believed it was possible to keep the property tax rate at $4.02 and not layoff any county employees or curtail any county services.

“I will not be voting for a tax increase,” he added. “I am convinced that there is still yet an opportunity for us to cut costs.”

After the vote, commissioner Steve Basar moved for reconsideration which was approved, keeping the framework of an ordinance before the commission. But his amendment to put the tax rate at $4.32 was voted down.

At that point, the commission voted to refer the matter to a budget committee meeting next week.

The $4.32 rate is the certified tax rate that county government and the state estimate would create the same amount of revenue for county government as the existing rate of $4.02 based on property value lost in the 2013 property reappraisal.

Just before the $4.38 rate was defeated, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said a significantly lower tax rate would mean layoffs and reduced services.

“To say that we have not given proper attention to cutting is really a fallacy,” he added. “We will continue to cut.”

He also defended the extra $20 million in the budget in funding for the consolidated school system and the six-cent tax hike in the tax rate that would go for half of that amount of new school funding.

Luttrell cited “significant turmoil” in local public education and said interim superintendent Dorsey Hopson is “trying to pull our education system out of the fire.”

“This year, I think we as a county owe it to the public education system to show them that level of support,” he continued.

And Luttrell said all seven of the cities and towns in Shelby County proposed property tax hikes for the new fiscal year and pointed out that six of the seven have Republican mayors.

Meanwhile, the commission later elected Harvey as its new chairman for a one-year term that begins Sept. 1 and elected Basar as chairman pro tempore for a similar term.

Harvey was elected the votes of six of the seven commissioners who voted “no” with him on the tax rate. The only exception was Ford who voted for current chairman Mike Ritz, who was making a bid for a second term.

Harvey also drew support from fellow Democrats Henri Brooks and Sidney Chism.

He was elected on the ninth round of voting by the commission. The first three rounds were before the debate and decision on the tax rate. The commission then put off later votes until after the final reading of the tax rate ordinance.

Basar was elected to the number two post with seven-votes in a closer contest with commissioner Heidi Shafer.

And the commission approved the appointment of engineer Julie Furr to the Memphis and Shelby County Building Code Board. Furr’s appointment by Luttrell was delayed by the commission after she voiced opposition to pushing back the effective date of new seismic building code regulations.

The later effective date for the new code at the end of the year was approved by the commission as well as the Memphis City Council. Furr remained vocal in her opposition to the decision.