Billingsley Is Newest County Commissioner As "Tax Dead" Program Advances

By Bill Dries

Former Germantown alderman Mark Billingsley is the newest Shelby County Commissioner.

On the second ballot Monday, Jan. 13, commissioners appointed Billingsley to fill the vacancy created by the resignation this month of Wyatt Bunker, who became mayor of Lakeland last year.

Billingsley serves the nine months left in Bunker’s term of office. But he is also a candidate in the 2014 elections for a full four-year term in one of the smaller single-member districts the commission will convert to with the 2014 elections.

Billingsley, who is director of major gifts for Methodist Healthcare Foundation, is running in the Republican primary for the new District 4. The current district lines with four districts with three commissioners each is in place until the winners in the August county general elections take office Sept. 1.

Several of the contenders for the appointment were running in other of the new, smaller districts as well.

Billingsley’s closest competitors Monday were George Chism, a candidate in the new District 2, and former Shelby County Schools board member Diane George who is not running for commission. Each of them had two vote compared to Billingsley’s five votes on the first ballot.

Commissioner Sidney Chism nominated Dennis Daugherty, a Memphis firefighter from Arlington, who has pulled a qualifying petition to run against commissioner Terry Roland in the new District 1.

Chism and Roland are locked in an ongoing ethics dispute in which Roland has formally complained that Chism shouldn’t have voted on schools funding because of his one-time ownership of a day care center that received federal funding. The ethics complaint is still pending.

Daugherty got no votes in the first or second round of voting – not even from Chism.

Former Germantown alderman Frank Uhlhorn got one vote in the first round.

Billingsley had seven and votes beyond that in the second round of voting.

He took the oath of office minutes later and took his seat with other commissioners, voting on matters that came before the body at the remainder of Monday’s meeting.

In other action at the commission’s first meeting of 2014, commissioners approved a resolution that sets the framework for an anti-blight program specifically for “tax dead” properties. Those are properties in which the owner owes more in back taxes and related fees than the property is valued at or could ever be sold for.

Commissioner Steve Mulroy scrambled and accepted amendments to the basic idea of a grant or loan to a prospective property owner in the amount of those back taxes and fees that would then be used to pay off the back amount.

The amendments included making the $200,000 a year fund in the five-year pilot program available only to nonprofit community development corporations and not individual developers or homeowners.

The program also includes an additional incentive from a $100,000 a year fund to grant the property owners the equivalent of five additional years in property taxes on the property. An attempt to amend that out of the resolution was voted down by the commission.

The resolution now goes to the Tennessee Attorney General’s office for review which is a part of the process established in enabling state legislation. If the Attorney General’s office finds the terms of the program are not arbitrary and capricious and do not violate the state’s prohibition against waiving or forgiving property taxes, the commission would approve further details.

The details already include an appointed committee that would administer the program and there has already been some indication of how the attorneys in Nashville might view the program.

Assistant County Attorney Danny Presley talked with two officials in the Attorney General’s office in Nashville Monday as the commission waited.

Presley said while their opinion wasn’t definitive, they expressed concern about limiting the program to community development corporations only.

That led Mulroy to amend the program further with what he termed a “severability clause.” It says that if the Attorney General’s office rules that the limit to CDCs doesn’t fly legally, it can be severed from the program without starting all over in the process of passing a resolution.

The Memphis City Council has discussed making the program a joint city-county program but has delayed its action to let the commission take the lead on such a program.

The commission delayed action on a resolution by commissioner Steve Basar to oppose the application by the city of Memphis for a Fairgrounds Tourism Development Zone.

The delay came after Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said he and Memphis Mayor

A C Wharton Jr. have begun talks about their different interpretations of what happens to sales tax revenue in the zone that would normally go to schools.

Basar’s resolution is based on the opinion of county attorneys that the TDZ would take sales tax within its boundaries intended to fund Shelby County Schools.

City Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb has said that it will not affect the portion of the sales tax that goes to schools.

Luttrell said in his talks with Wharton, Wharton had pledged to make up any loss of such funding if that was the case.

And the commission gave final approval Monday to the ordinance that sets the salaries of the Shelby County Property Assessor, Register, Trustee and Shelby County Clerk for the four-year term of office that begins Sept. 1.

The annual pay of the Assessor will remain at $108,615 and the annual pay of the other three offices will remain at $107,975. The commission also added that any annual pay raise for county employees in those four years does not automatically go to the holders of those four offices which are on the 2014 ballot.