VOL. 126 | NO. 121 | Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Commission Approves Balanced Budget
By Bill Dries
No county property tax hike. No 2 percent pay raise for county employees. The full $400,000 in funding for the county office of early childhood and youth, and no cuts in funding to the Greater Memphis Chamber or Shelby Farms Park.
Those were the basic elements of the compromise that balanced the Shelby County government’s consolidated budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The series of votes Monday, June 20, by the Shelby County Commission ended the budget season with $95,622 more in estimated revenues than expenditures.
But the broader questions the commission debated right up to the votes setting the terms of the spending plan are likely to still be around at this time next year. They are the same questions about the role of local government Memphis City Council members have also been debating this year on the other side of the Main Street Mall.
“I’m concerned that there are some of us who are just (saying) ‘no tax increase’ as a philosophy whether we need the money or not,” commissioner Walter Bailey said as he proposed a 2-cent property tax rate increase. “You can’t run a government efficiently without a revenue source. … We’ve got to get real.”
He even asked county chief administrative officer Harvey Kennedy at one point, “Do we see taxes in the future?”
Commissioners Terry Roland, Wyatt Bunker and Chris Thomas were quick to tell Bailey that he was correct. They are philosophically opposed to property tax increases.
“Are we raising taxes for sport now?” Bunker replied.
Bunker ultimately joined Bailey in voting against the budget resolution – the only two “no” votes. Bailey voted no because he felt the budget went too far, Bunker because he felt it didn’t go far enough and should have rolled back the property tax rate.
County Commission chairman Sidney Chism thought that beneath the ruffled feathers on both sides there were some decisions that point in possible directions. For now he said the decisions are “necessary adjustments.”
But he believes the commission won’t continue funding both the Greater Memphis Chamber and EDGE (Economic Development Growth Engine), the initiative both mayors have assembled to guide economic development policy.
County Commission chairman Sidney Chism predicted that next year would be the time “to take a closer look at some things we’re funding.”
(Photo: Lance Murphey)
“We needed the funding to get EDGE to stand on its own,” Chism said. “Next year we’re going to take a closer look at some things we’re funding. … Maybe if we stop funding some of this stuff we’ll have money to give for raises, but this wasn’t the time for that.”
Commissioner Henri Brooks, who joined Bunker in initially opposing any continued funding for the Office of Early Childhood and Youth, is looking forward to an overhaul of the four-person office that has grown in a few years from a budget of $90,000 to more than $400,000.
“The office is still there, but it’s going to be restructured such that it will be more effective and more people can benefit and more children can be reached,” Brooks said.
But Brooks doesn’t think much of the idea that there is an ideological divide on the commission much beyond Bunker.
“One person talks about what government should do and what government should not do,” Brooks said. “Government has a role in everything. The federal dollars – they come down here. Should we send them back when we have a great need?”
Most commissioners on both sides of the question of whether to continue the office’s funding didn’t care for the email campaign rallying support for continued funding. Commissioner Justin Ford said the emails “vilified” commissioners for asking questions about an office that coordinates federal, state and private grants for programs outside county government.
When Bunker unsuccessfully proposed cutting $250,000 in funding a sickle cell clinic on Methodist University Hospital property, Brooks asked, “Why do you want to be so mean spirited?”
Thomas said the funding was akin to “socialized medicine.” Because sickle cell affects African-Americans primarily, Brooks saw a possible racial motive. Thomas accused her of “playing the race card.”
“The race card is in the deck,” Brooks replied. “Take a look around and see who’s in the majority.”
Commissioner Steve Mulroy said some were “nickel and diming” many of the grants aimed to reducing poverty. That ended with the votes Monday, at least for now.
“Taxes, pay raises, the scope of spending on poverty related programs – we’re going to be debating them next year and probably the year after that,” Mulroy said.