Commission Approves Budgets and Dueling Tax Rates Without PreK Amendment

By Bill Dries

Shelby County Commissioners signed off Monday, June 2, on a $1.1 billion consolidated operating budget for all of Shelby County government as well as a $75 million capital budget, both for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

But the commission didn’t resolve what the new county property tax rate will be for the new fiscal year. And there will be a renewed attempt in two weeks to add pre-kindergarten funding after it failed Monday.

The commission approved two versions of a tax rate Monday, each on the first of three readings.

One version, proposed by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell would do away with the four cents extra on the tax rate that is paid by property owners who live outside the city Memphis and take the $4.38 tax rate to $4.37 with an accompanying one-cent reduction countywide.

The other version, proposed by commissioners Mike Ritz and Steve Mulroy, would keep the four cents on the rate outside the city of Memphis that was originally put in place to pay off rural school bonds used to finance construction of Arlington High School.

The four cents comes to $2.8 million in revenue.

Luttrell proposed doing away with that and paying the remaining debt on the rural school bonds with $2.8 million in revenue from the sales tax generated in the unincorporated parts of Shelby County.

Mulroy favored instead using the sales tax revenue to finance an expansion of prekindergarten classrooms. When Mulroy’s amendment failed, Ritz then proposed simply keeping the four cents in place and that measure was approved.

Mulroy said later he will seek to revive the pre-k issue at the June 16 commission meeting.

Mulroy’s amendment to add $70,000 in funding for a Memphis Area Transit Authority fixed bus route service on weekends to Shelby Farms Park was approved as part of the operating budget. Transit authority officials said such a route would originate from the north bus terminal Downtown with several stops in the inner city on the way to the park. Mulroy said his intent is for the funding to come into play in the event that leaders of the bus line do not secure a federal grant specifically for Shelby Farms Park bus service they are awaiting word on.

Mulroy and other commissioners pushed for the funding as well as a resolution sying the commission "expects" that a new splash park at Shelby Farms to come will be open for free one day a week to boost access to the park by poor children living in the inner city.

Meanwhile, the commission discussion veered into the long history of the park that was once the county penal farm.

Commissioner Walter Bailey advocated abiding by a 1970s study on the land before it became a park that advocated residential and commercial development on the land instead of a public use.

In approving the capital improvements budget, the commission also approved appropriating $3 million in funding for the $70 million “Heart of the Park” expansion at Shelby Farms that includes an expansion of Patriot Lake. The capital budget also included a $1.5 million appropriation for the expansion of a rail line on Presidents Island that will include the Cargill operation in the industrial area. The rail expansion is also expected to prompt other private development near Cargill by other tenants.

And commissioners approved on the second of three readings an amended pay raise for Shelby County Schools board members.

The original measure by Ritz was to boost board members from their current $4,200 a year to $25,000 with the chairman of the board going from $4,500 a year to $26,000 a year.

That failed on second reading and Mulroy amended it to be a raise to $15,000 for board members with $16,000 for the board chairman.

The measure will need nine votes to pass on third and final reading.

The commission also approved an office and retail planned development at the northwest corner of Austin Peay Highway and Millington-Arlington Road by First Citizen’s National Bank.

And the commission approved a new county cemetery on the northeast corner of Raleigh-Millington and Duncan Roads that was rejected last month by the Memphis City Council.

County officials estimate the county will run out of plots in the existing county cemetery on Ellis Road in 18 months. The first phase of the new cemetery would be good for 20 years according to county public works director Tom Needham, at a rate of 40 burials a month.