VOL. 128 | NO. 141 | Monday, July 22, 2013
Commission Tries Again to Set County Tax Rate
By Bill Dries
Shelby County Commissioners try again Monday, July 22, to set a county property tax rate for the fiscal year that began July 1.
And they will start consideration of the issue with a proposed $4.38 tax rate backed by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell on the second of three readings.
The commission meeting is at 1:30 p.m. at the Vasco Smith County Administration Building, 160 N. Main St.
Follow live Tweets from the meeting at www.twitter.com/tdnpols.
The only new certainty since the July 8 meeting when the commission voted down the $4.38 rate is that whatever tax rate the commission passes, it cannot cut county funding to the consolidated school system in the county budget.
“We are really not empowered to take money back from schools,” Luttrell told commissioners last week during Wednesday committee sessions.
Luttrell said a legal opinion from County Attorney Kelly Rayne states the schools funding commitment is set once the county budget is approved and the school board then approves their budget based on that amount.
The total county budget, including the county’s share of school funding, is based on a $4.38 tax rate. If the commission changes the tax rate from that, it has to then alter how the tax rate is allocated to fund the budget.
The $4.38 rate could only muster four votes in committee last week with 12 of the 13 commissioners present.
Committee votes are not binding on the full commission. They only constitute a recommendation. But with all but one of the commissioners present, last week’s votes were a good indication of sentiment on the body, and that indication is no tax rate appeared to have seven votes needed to pass despite some big changes in positions.
Commissioner Terry Roland, who at the start of the county’s budget season declared that he considered anything above the current rate of $4.02 a tax hike that he could not support, compromised with a proposal for a $4.32 tax rate.
The $4.32 rate is the certified rate estimated to produce the same amount of revenue as the current $4.02 rate taking into account property value lost in the 2013 property reappraisal.
“I realize we are going to have to come together on something,” Roland began, saying he also realized there were not seven votes for a $4.02 rate. He even agreed that county funding to the school system should not be cut.
But there were only two votes – Roland and commissioner Steve Basar – on the commission last week for the $4.32 rate. That was after several other commissioners favoring $4.38 said they didn’t think their position had seven votes either.
“We can’t get there,” said Commission Chairman Mike Ritz. “It is imperative to get a tax rate behind us.
Commissioner Chris Thomas suggested furloughs of non-public-safety, non-critical county employees to make a lower tax rate than $4.38 work.
“That’s kind of a last option to consider,” Luttrell said. “I don’t think we are at that point yet.”
“I thought we were at that last-ditch effort,” Thomas said. “But apparently we’re not.”
Commissioner Walter Bailey accused Roland and other opponents of the original tax rate proposed of being “armchair pundits” who were acting with “capriciousness bordering on irresponsibility.”
“You are picking numbers out of the air,” he said. “It is total nonsense for us to do anything other than $4.38.”
Commissioner Wyatt Bunker accused Bailey of being “elitist” and advocating for tax hikes from “your gated community on the river,” which Bailey called a “cheap shot.”
Meanwhile Bunker also quarreled with Luttrell’s view that commissioners opposed to the $4.38 proposal should offer a plan with budget cuts.
“My job is to tell you what the people can and cannot afford,” Bunker said. “It’s your job to cut.”
Luttrell said the cuts “are going to impact staff. It is going to impact programs. There is no way around it.”
“I don’t want to see job losses,” said commissioner Justin Ford who nevertheless voted against the $4.38 rate. “I don’t want to see cuts in services.”
Commissioner Henri Brooks continued to push her proposal that some of the county funding for schools be swapped out for one year only with revenue from the sales tax hikes approved last year in the six suburban towns and cities for their separate school districts.
Roland said there was no chance of suburban leaders agreeing to that. His proposal for the certified rate of $4.32 got a lot fewer votes than he expected.
“Forgive me for trying to work with you and compromise,” he said after the rejection signaling where Monday’s meeting could begin in terms of its tenor. “It’s either all or none. … Do not take my compromise as weakness.”