It wasn’t about line items when the Shelby County Commission approved a county operating budget Monday, June 3, for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Despite a set of amendments to remove particular amounts from the budget, commissioners devoted most of their budget deliberations to a broader discussion about the role of government – county government in particular.
The discussion was punctuated with the approval of the first of three readings of a tax rate ordinance that would raise the county property tax rate by 36 cents – 30 cents for the recertified rate and a six-cent tax hike to fund the consolidated school system.
The budget action renewed a long-standing discussion among a commission with a 7-6 majority Democrat split and some deep philosophical differences that don’t always fall along party lines.
Most amendments to the budget from the group of four Republican commissioners who have been the most vocal opponents of county spending and the tax hike failed.
The amendments defeated included deleting: $57.6 million from the budget – the amount of money involved if the tax rate remained at $4.02; $9.6 million which is the amount of funding the six-cent tax hike would create for schools; $635,000 which is all of the money the county gives in grants to nonprofit and private groups; and $7,500 which is the amount the commission spends on bringing in food for commissioners during the Monday meetings twice a month.
Three of the four amendments were made by commissioner Heidi Shafer. The administration of Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell estimated the $57.6 million budget cut would mean laying off 870 people. Chief Administrative Officer Harvey Kennedy said it would “decimate” county government.
“I’d like to know what economic philosophy or policy she’s operating from,” county commissioner Walter Bailey said of Shafer as the two sat next to each other. “I’d like to see something other than empty rhetoric. Political grandstanding is what I call it – pandering to the conservative public.”
Bailey argued such cuts would move the county away from its basic mission.
“This proposed amendment doesn’t take into account at all the health and welfare of the citizens of this county,” he said. “That’s what government has the basic responsibility of doing. Government operates as the collective will of the people, to care for their safety health and welfare.”
Shafer argued county government does too much that nonprofits and other private groups should instead be doing, especially when county government delivering such services involves a property tax hike.
“I think it’s interesting that a 15 percent cut in government is Draconian, but a 10 percent tax increase for the public is – that’s all for the good,” she replied to Bailey.
Commissioner Wyatt Bunker routinely votes against federal and state grants for social services programs he argues the county has no business providing even if the services are funded by the grants. And sometimes he is the only commissioner to vote no on the items.
This week he had more company in his belief that the added burden on taxpayers represents a “never ending cycle of destruction on our economy.”
And Bunker questioned the political motivation of those on the other side of the issue.
“We have such a large population of poor people and they’ve elected people who have grown up in poverty situations, people who have come through government bureaucracies or whatever. And they are now making decisions,” he said. “They have benefited from these programs and/or they never learned to manage money on their own. … We’ve got a bunch of people over here that have never had to or ever been able to manage their own personal business in charge of our county that handles several billion dollars.”
Meanwhile, the one budget amendment and cut that did pass Monday cut $300,000 in county funding for Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court. The funding is part of a settlement among the county administration, the court and the U.S. Department of Justice over due process conditions in the court and would pay for monitors and consultants to the court.
Commissioner Henri Brooks argued that since the commission wasn’t part of the agreement, it isn’t obligated to approve the amount.
As a majority of votes on the 13-member body lined up for the move by Brooks some “no” votes switched. Such switches are an indication that those switching will try to move for reconsideration of the decision at the next commission meeting.