Commissioners Scratch Heads - And Bump Heads - Over Financial Issues

By Bill Dries

"Quite frankly, I think these people in the public works department have lost their minds - absolutely lost their minds. I'm talking to you, Director (Ted) Fox, and the county engineer (Micheal Oakes)."

- Mike Ritz
Shelby County Commissisoner

Some Shelby County Board of Commissioners members seem resolved to make some kind of cuts in county spending. Others say they will propose a different way of raising revenue beyond a property tax rate hike.

It was Friday that Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. assembled his team and other elected county administrators to acknowledge there will be no growth in revenue likely in the coming fiscal year and at least $16.5 million in red ink.

As the week began, county commissioners talked about cuts and new revenue sources, but seemed far from a consensus on anything specific that has the seven votes necessary to win approval.

The discussion already has a level of intensity that suggests the budget committee hearings to begin in April should be emotional.

No holds barred

For the last year, commissioners Wyatt Bunker and Mike Ritz have been the two most vocal proponents of spending cuts as a fundamental change in the way the county does business.

Both have openly challenged Wharton's assertion that there is nothing left to cut in the county budget.

Monday, Ritz chose a $460,000 road design resolution involving a stretch of Holmes Road in Southeast Shelby County to make the point again.

"How hard is this to figure out? If we don't quit spending money, some of you are going to have to vote for a tax increase. I'm not. I'm going to remind you all of these votes," said Ritz, who has been a frequent critic of the planning process for county road projects, claiming some are wasteful and don't solve traffic problems or make conditions safer.

"Quite frankly, I think these people in the public works department have lost their minds - absolutely lost their minds. I'm talking to you, Director Fox, and the county engineer," Ritz said, referring to County Public Works Director Ted Fox and County Engineer Michael Oakes.

Neither Fox nor Oakes responded. But Wharton said he didn't care for the remark.

"I'm simply asking that members of my staff be accorded just a little decency," Wharton said. "I think we have some children here today."

Getting 'fiscal'

Ritz didn't back down even as commission chairman David Lillard said the road project was needed for children attending nearby Highland Oaks Elementary School and the temporary county school housed at the old Schnucks store on Riverdale Road.

"I'm one of the most conservative people in county government in regard to money," Lillard said, referring to his insistence that old carpet be reused in the commission offices as new office hardware is installed. "I didn't want to replace the carpet in our committee room. That's how cheap David Lillard is."

Bunker voted with Ritz against the road project, but said he would have used other words than Ritz to criticize it. Bunker has also said that it is the role of the Wharton administration, not the commission, to find specific areas for cuts.

Commissioner Henri Brooks admitted to "frustration" with the budget process but concluded, "Let's get fiscal on something else."

Impact fees on developers would qualify as something else, Brooks said.

"We're going to have budget issues until we start looking at out-of-the-box kinds of revenue management. ... We need to
start looking at development fees, impact fees, what have you, so we can raise revenue not at the expense of health and safety," she said.