Luttrell: County Budget Reaching Cuts Limit

By Bill Dries

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell refers to county government as “wholesale level government.”


He used the term again Tuesday, April 30, in a state of the county speech to the Memphis Rotary Club at the University Club.

Luttrell said the wholesaler that provides services to Memphians and those living in the six suburban towns and cities as well as unincorporated Shelby County is about as lean as it can get.

“Folks, there comes a time when you can only cut so far without impacting essential services of government,” he told the audience of 100 as he again said there is likely to be a county property tax hike before the budget season ends sometime in June. “We’re just about at that point.”

Luttrell said his administration is continuing to look for efficiencies as it awaits a schools budget proposal for the first year of the schools merger that is expected to reach the county administration by May 22.

“We don’t know what education is going to cost,” he added as he talked of past hopes he would have some kind of budget plan this past January. “From the very first day, when we started looking at this issue of merging schools we were told it was not going to be cheap. … To say I’m frustrated with the school board is an understatement.”

Luttrell told Shelby County Commissioners at the opening of the county budget season in April it will likely take 33 cents on the existing tax rate of $4.02 to create the same amount of revenue the county gets from the current tax rate when the 2013 property reappraisal is factored in. The drop in property values with the reappraisal means a penny on the tax rate generates less revenue.

But the new rate of $4.35 would be a recertified rate.

Some on the commission are talking of a 7-cent tax hike on top of the 33 cents.

That would be a 9.9 percent property tax increase that requires only a seven-vote simple majority vote of the commission for approval. A tax hike of 10 percent or more requires a nine-vote super majority. County Commission Chairman Mike Ritz has said he doesn’t believe the votes are there on the commission for 10 percent or more.

Luttrell has said he is not taking a stand on a property tax hike at this point until he sees the schools budget and whether the school board has made what he has termed “tough decisions” about the merger. Luttrell also wants to increase funding to Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court to fulfill terms of a settlement agreement with the U.S. Justice Department over due process problems in the court the department cited last year.

Past the halfway point in his four-year term as mayor and just about to the point where he is expected to announce his re-election bid later this year, Luttrell focused Tuesday on the role of “trying to build consensus” over a very real urban-suburban divide that existed long before the schools merger made the divide wider.

“The county mayor is the one position that is uniquely positioned to really try to build bridges for that collaboration across the county,” he said. “The biggest challenge we have in the county mayor’s office is trying to build that consensus. I will say that one of the toughest parts of the job of being mayor is how can we build together a county government that indeed unites our community.”