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VOL. 128 | NO. 133 | Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Commission Awaits Next Budget Steps

By Bill Dries

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When Shelby County Commissioners get together Wednesday, July 17, for committee sessions, they will probably begin to fill in some of the blank space left in the wake of their decision this week to vote down a $4.38 county property tax rate.

Shelby County Commissioners voted down a $4.38 county property tax rate Monday.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

The 7-5 vote striking down the tax hike came eight days into the new fiscal year and weeks after the commission gave final approval to a county government operating budget that is based on the $4.38 rate.

There were early signs that the seven-vote majority already could be dividing on next moves.

Commissioner Steve Basar, who was part of that majority, later moved for reconsideration, which was approved. That keeps the framework of an ordinance before the commission. But his amendment to put the tax rate at $4.32 was voted down.

The $4.32 rate is the certified tax rate that county government and the state estimate would create the same amount of revenue for county government as the existing rate of $4.02 based on property value lost in the 2013 property reappraisal.

When the $4.32 amendment failed, a majority on the commission then voted to send the matter to committee sessions next week. Without that, the commission would have had to start over with the budget process.

The surprises in the key vote total were Democratic Commissioners James Harvey and Justin Ford, both of whom voted no.

Ford didn’t take part in the commission debate before the tax rate vote.

Harvey said he believed it was possible to keep the property tax rate at $4.02 and not lay off any county employees or curtail any county services.

“I will not be voting for a tax increase,” he said. “I am convinced that there is still yet an opportunity for us to cut costs.”

He and Ford joined with five Republican commissioners who had expressed opposition to a $4.38 rate from first reading on.

“I would like to make a last appeal for us to live within our means,” said Commissioner Heidi Shafer.

“I guess I’m scratching my head trying to figure out where all the panic is,” countered Commissioner Walter Bailey, who estimated the tax hike would come out to about $9 a month more for many homeowners. “Where is the draconian imposition on taxpayers?”

Bailey tried unsuccessfully to raise the rate 4 cents more to $4.42.

Commissioner Wyatt Bunker argued it is the cumulative impact of an already high tax rate that is prompting people to leave the county.

“You just can’t say every year, ‘Give us more funding,’” Bunker said. “The way you control government is to restrict the cash flow to government.”

Commissioner Steve Mulroy argued keeping services the same requires a higher property tax rate.

“The government is not immune from inflation,” he said. “We’re not going to cut realistically $60 million, which is the amount it takes to keep the tax rate at $4.02.”

Just before the $4.38 rate was defeated, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said a significantly lower tax rate would mean layoffs and reduced services across county government.

“To say that we have not given proper attention to cutting is really a fallacy,” he added. “We will continue to cut.”

He also defended the extra $20 million in the budget in funding for the consolidated school system and the 6-cent tax hike in the tax rate that would go for half of that amount of new school funding.

Luttrell cited “significant turmoil” in local public education and said interim superintendent Dorsey Hopson is “trying to pull our education system out of the fire.”

“This year, I think we as a county owe it to the public education system to show them that level of support,” he continued.

And Luttrell said all seven of the cities and towns in Shelby County proposed property tax hikes for the new fiscal year and pointed out that six of the seven have Republican mayors.

Meanwhile, the commission later elected Harvey as its new chairman for a one-year term that begins Sept. 1 and elected Basar as chairman pro tempore for a similar term.

Harvey was elected by six of the seven commissioners who voted “no” with him on the tax rate. The only exception was Ford; he voted for current Chairman Mike Ritz, who was making a bid for a second term.

Harvey also drew support from fellow Democrats Henri Brooks and Sidney Chism.

He was elected on the ninth round of voting by the commission. The first three rounds were before the debate and decision on the tax rate. The commission then put off later votes until after the final reading of the tax rate ordinance.

Basar was elected to the No. 2 post with seven votes in a closer contest with Shafer.

PROPERTY SALES 140 207 19,653
MORTGAGES 128 196 22,629
BUILDING PERMITS 166 367 40,371
BANKRUPTCIES 40 102 12,588