Sales Tax Referendum Shifts to Late Summer

By Bill Dries

A referendum on a half-percent city sales tax hike to fund a city pre-kindergarten expansion and roll back the city property tax rate by 20 cents would happen in August or September instead of May.

Memphis City Council members Shea Flinn and Jim Strickland revised their proposal Tuesday, Jan. 22, as the council moved toward a Feb. 5 vote on the resolution establishing a pre-kindergarten trust committee and the first of three readings on an ordinance authorizing the referendum.

“It’s run by the city of Memphis,” Strickland said of the structure for the pre-kindergarten expansion, which includes a nine-member commission appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council. “There is nothing prohibiting this commission from on occasion contracting with the schools (system) to provide some of the services. But it is run by the commission and the assessments, which are the quality control … that’s all city run.”

Council members heard Tuesday from pre-kindergarten program administrators in the Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools systems as well as Shelby County government’s Head Start program.

Of the estimated $47 million in revenue from the half percent sales tax hike, $27 million would go to fund pre-kindergarten classes in Memphis. The pre-K board would administer the trust fund. The remaining $20 million would be used to roll back the city property tax rate by 20 cents. Both uses for the money are in the referendum ordinance.

The measures are a reaction to the general wording of a countywide sales tax referendum that voters in the city and unincorporated areas of the county defeated in November. Backers of the tax mentioned a pre-kindergarten expansion prominently. But the funding would have gone to the countywide school system, and it made no specific commitment to use the money for pre-kindergarten.

“I got boxed up on those other message,” Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said of the campaign, which he backed in its early stages. “I’m not going there twice.”

“The No. 1 item that we are going to have to overcome is they don’t trust us.”

–Shea Flinn

Flinn said the defeat of the countywide sales tax hike makes it more difficult to pass the city tax hike.

“This is an investment that the city is making. The way the county would do it would be different. There are just too many question marks. … We say where it goes. We put it in the trust,” Flinn said. “The No. 1 item that we are going to have to overcome is they don’t trust us. This is an opportunity to win that trust back and do right.”

Council member Wanda Halbert stressed the need for “accountability.”

“We can’t come half-cocked on this,” she said. “Funding education is a very sensitive issue in Memphis. It’s so sensitive that we’ve even heard that if you don’t fund education you are going to be campaign targets and there’s a blame game. We can’t be afraid of that.”

She also questioned why existing pre-kindergarten services haven’t had more of an impact on student achievement. Halbert said the city should combine pre-K with wraparound social services as well.

“You can’t have children who go through a pre-K program but then somebody is not prepared in the classroom,” she said as she questioned why pre-kindergarten enrollment is voluntary. “If I’m going to invest a lot of money and a mother still has a choice, doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose?”

Meanwhile, the city of Memphis saved $2.8 million when it handed over the collection of city property taxes to the Shelby County Trustee’s office. The savings came from a computer upgrade the city would have had to make if the tax collections remained in the city treasurer’s office.

The Wharton administration wants to spend all but $1 million of that on a dozen projects, many involving grants from the state or private groups that require some kind of match of city funding.

The council approved Tuesday, Jan. 22, using $1.2 million of the money for two of the projects on the list – infrastructure around the site of the Nike plant expansion in Frayser and the “Main To Main” project connecting Main Street Memphis to Broadway Street in West Memphis including a boardwalk across the Harahan Bridge over the Mississippi River.

Council members voted to hold the other items on the list for more questions at a Feb. 5 committee session. The other projects include the development of Fletcher Creek Park in Cordova, a space use study of City Hall, development of retail in the Walker Avenue area next to the University of Memphis campus and still tentative plans to close Coughlin Drive onto Brooks Road in Whitehaven for future development.