The top two contenders for Shelby County mayor had the closest thing yet to a debate Monday, June 2, on budget priorities.
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and his Democratic challenger, former County Commissioner Deidre Malone, didn’t address each other directly.
But they staked out different positions on a possible expansion of prekindergarten classrooms as the Shelby County Commission voted down an attempt to add pre-K funding to the county’s operating budget, with $2.8 million in funding tied to keeping 4 cents extra on the county property tax rate outside Memphis.
Luttrell said the timing is wrong for a prekindergarten expansion, and he cited the failure of two ballot questions last year – one in the county and the other in the city – to raise the local option sales tax rates by half a percent, with the revenue pledged to prekindergarten expansion.
Voters rejected both ballot questions when critics raised doubts about whether the county sales tax hike could be mandated for prekindergarten use. The city sales tax hike failed even though there were stricter safeguards for its use for prekindergarten through an appointed citizens panel.
“I think we need to go about this in a different way,” Luttrell said. “It’s time to start thinking about another process – a plan that gets it right and that first of all building consensus in the community.”
Luttrell, who opposed and even vetoed the move to the ballot for the county sales tax hike, said removing the 4 cents on the county property tax rate outside Memphis to pay off rural school bonds used to build Arlington High School is a step toward a later consensus on pre-K.
Malone was among those who campaigned for the county sales tax hike.
“It takes political courage to do this, and yes, the community is watching,” she said Monday. Malone also cited the City Council’s rollback of the city property tax rate in 2008 as an example of what can happen when cutting the tax rate becomes a political goal without purpose.
“Look at the city of Memphis,” she said, referring to city government’s financial problems.
In a written statement after Monday’s commission vote, Malone said, “Sometimes our elected officials make decisions to make people feel good about their government, rather than to be strategic about what our community needs are and how to fund those needs.”
The commission signed off Monday on a $1.1 billion consolidated operating budget for Shelby County government and a $75 million capital budget, both for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The operating budget includes a 3 percent pay raise for county employees.
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 again add prekindergarten funding.
Commissioner Steve Mulroy said the second attempt will hinge on changing the “no” vote of Democratic Commissioner Justin Ford.
The commission approved two versions of a tax rate Monday, each on the first of three readings.
One version, proposed by Luttrell, would do away with the 4 cents extra on the property tax rate outside the city of Memphis, and lower the countywide tax rate 1 cent to $4.37.
The other version, proposed by Commissioners Mike Ritz and Mulroy, would keep the 4 cents on the rate outside the city of Memphis.
The 4 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 instead favored using the sales tax revenue to finance an expansion of prekindergarten classrooms. When Mulroy’s amendment failed, Ritz proposed simply keeping the 4 cents in place, and that measure was approved.