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VOL. 127 | NO. 157 | Monday, August 13, 2012

Ritz Seeks Countywide Sales Tax Hike

By Bill Dries

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Incoming Shelby County Commission chairman Mike Ritz wants to add a countywide sales tax hike for education to the Nov. 6 ballot.


The move, if approved by voters, would not only trump the half-cent sales tax hikes approved this month for five of the six suburban municipal school districts – it would also lessen the revenue the city of Memphis would get from a half-percent citywide sales tax hike already on the November ballot.

But first, Ritz’s referendum ordinance would have to be added to the agenda for the Monday, Aug. 13, commission meeting.

The commission meets at 1:30 p.m. at the Vasco Smith County Administration Building, 160 N. Main St.

Ritz’s attempt to add the item to the agenda during committee sessions last week lost on a 2-2 tie vote.

“There would be $61 million collected and $30.5 million to go to schools direct,” Ritz said. “It’s any school system … municipal school systems and the countywide school system.”

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has mentioned such a sales tax hike to bridge a gap between revenues and expenses for the new consolidated countywide school system of at least $57 million, according to the consolidation planning commission. Luttrell talked about a sales tax hike as one of several funding options he is weighing in conversations with commissioners as well as The Daily News editorial board last month.

But Luttrell argued the move to the ballot is “premature.” He has repeatedly linked any increase in county funding for the countywide school system to whether the countywide school board gives serious consideration to the planning commission’s 172 recommendations for the merged school system.

Those recommendations include closing up to 20 schools in the western part of Memphis in one school year as well as outsourcing custodial and transportation functions to private vendors.

“I want to see how the school system – school board – resolves this problem first,” Luttrell said. “If I’m convinced that they’ve made every effort to bridge that gap and there’s still a deficit, that would be the time to consider revenue assistance for them. If the board doesn’t show political resolve, I would be very reluctant to reach out and give them support.”

But Ritz said a delay until the spring budget season on that point means the citywide sales tax hike might have already passed and county residents in the unincorporated areas might not support a sales tax hike on their own, leaving the commission with only a property tax hike option.

Commissioner Chris Thomas said Ritz’s proposal was an attempt to hobble the municipal school districts before they can open or even elect school boards.

“I didn’t ask for the mess. I didn’t ask for the merger. That’s something the city school board decided to do,” he said. “Everybody here knows this is an attempt to cut into the municipal school districts money.”

Already on the commission’s agenda are plans for a 4.3-mile extension of the Shelby Farms Greenline east of its terminus at Farm Road, across Germantown Parkway and to the old Cordova train depot. The extension along the old CSX rail line got a $3.3 million Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program grant through the Tennessee Department of Transportation. It requires a $1.1 million local match.

The Shelby Farms Park Conservancy is guaranteeing half of that through private donors and county government is putting up the other half of the local match.

The commission will also vote on a $165,500 contract with Tetra Tech Inc. for engineering design work and management of the project, the first part of a three-phase project.

The two later phases are right-of-way acquisition, which is budgeted to cost $3.1 million and project construction at $1.1 million.

The commission will also vote Monday on a lease agreement with Nucor Steel Memphis Inc. for 41 acres of land owned by city and/or county government in the Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park. The land is for future growth of the steel plant.

The Memphis-Shelby County Port Commission approved the lease and option to purchase in February.

Nucor is planning a $113 million expansion that will create 27 new jobs at the site on Paul R. Lowry Road, across from its existing plant.

The Charlotte, N.C.-based steelmaker filed a $2 million building permit application in May, according to The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com, for the expansion to produce “high quality carbon alloy steel for the automotive, heavy equipment and service center markets.”

Before the filing, the city-county Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) board awarded Nucor a 15-year tax freeze for the expansion that will save Nucor approximately $9.4 million in taxes over the term of the agreement.

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