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VOL. 128 | NO. 246 | Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Commission Votes Down School Board Pay Raise

By Bill Dries

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The issue of how much to pay elected officials was settled Monday, Dec. 16, by the Shelby County Commission on one front.

Shelby County Commissioners ended a prolonged political debate about pay raises for elected officials on one level Monday.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

But the debate will still be around in another form in the new year.

Commissioners voted down the first of three readings of a proposed $20,000 pay raise for Shelby County Schools board members and kept the pay of the county mayor, sheriff, trustee, register, county clerk and assessor at the same level they are now.

The votes on the non-school board elected officials were on third and final reading, and they effectively decide issues that have prompted much commission debate in the last two months.

The failure of the school board pay raise on first reading, with two more to come, however, ensures the debate will continue into the new year with a different frame of reference.

Commissioner Melvin Burgess, who is audit director for Shelby County Schools, supported the pay raise for school board members who set his own pay, linking it to overall funding of education.

“Either we invest here today, or we invest on the back end in prison,” Burgess said. “We are at a crisis in education in this community.”

Burgess, in a disclaimer before the vote, acknowledged his job with the school system, but still voted on the matter.

Commissioner Terry Roland said he will formally contest Burgess’ ability to vote on the question.

“How is it not a quid pro quo?” Roland asked as he termed the vote “illegal.”

“Do you see how bad this looks to the public?” he asked. “We’re talking about deals being made here with the public’s money.”

The pay raise fell two votes short of the nine-vote, two-thirds majority needed for passage but still advances to second and third readings.

Commissioner Steve Mulroy plans to have some numbers by second reading on how much school board members are paid in other comparable Tennessee cities and counties.

Shelby County Schools board members are paid $4,200 a year. Mulroy said he was surprised to learn Metro Nashville Schools board members are paid “only” $14,000 a year.

“There’s never been a good time to do something like this,” said Commissioner Mike Ritz who proposed the raise. “I think that’s why we need to do this now.”

Commissioners Chris Thomas and Wyatt Bunker, both former school board members before the merger of Shelby County’s two public schools systems, spoke against a pay raise that so far no one on the seven-member board has publicly endorsed or called for.

Commissioner Heidi Shafer said the raise is “kind of putting them in an embarrassing position.”

“It makes them look as if they are lining their pockets as they ask others to sacrifice,” she said, referring to the transition to schools consolidation in which some teachers and other schools employees lost their jobs or took pay cuts.

Shafer and other commissioners also said the timing wasn’t right given a Shelby County property tax hike earlier in the year.

Commissioner Henri Brooks, however, said it was unfair to link the issues, which she said amounts to “pitting one group of people against another.”

“That has inflamed people to no end,” Brooks said. “You can’t make sound decisions when the community is inflamed. They need to be adequately compensated. … How do you think we look when we pay our school board $4,200 a year?”

There were many more rounds of voting and more parliamentary maneuvering than debate as the commission ultimately approved on third and final reading an ordinance that leaves the pay of the Shelby County mayor and Shelby County sheriff the same when they begin their new four-year terms of office Sept. 1, 2014.

The mayor’s pay will remain $142,500 a year, and the sheriff’s pay will remain $115,000.

The commission also voted on third and final reading to keep the pay of the trustee, register and county clerk at $107,933 a year and the pay of the assessor at $108,615 a year.

The third ordinance in the set of three passed with very little political fireworks. That ordinance keeps the pay of commissioners at $29,100 a year for the next term of office.

Commissioners also approved Monday a $7.1 million settlement of the long-running litigation in Shelby County Chancery Court over payments-in-lieu-of-taxes from Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division through the city of Memphis.

The city will pay the county the money to settle the dispute for tax years 2010 and 2011 under terms of the settlement resolution, which emerged after a closed session Monday with attorneys by the commission.

The resolution appears to require passage by the Memphis City Council at some point.

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