VOL. 130 | NO. 121 | Tuesday, June 23, 2015
County Commission Takes Long Way to Budget Approval
By Bill Dries
In the space of five hours Monday, June 22, Shelby County Commissioners voted down an operating budget, a capital budget and an attempt at a continuation budget to keep spending at the same levels past July 1 and into the new fiscal year.
County attorney Russ Dyer, center, confers with Chief Administrative Officer Harvey Kennedy, left, and County Mayor Mark Luttrell, right, in one of many caucuses during a five-hour County commission session wrapping up most budget items.
(Daily News/Bill Dries)
Then there was a walkout by four commissioners in an unsuccessful attempt to end the meeting.
But by about 8 p.m., the commission approved a $1.18 billion operating budget while keeping their extra funding to within a $6 million county government surplus. And on second glance they approved the $21 million capital budget.
In a session dominated by budget items, the commission also voted down a stable $4.37 county property tax rate for the new fiscal year on the second of three readings Monday. But the proposal still advances to a third and final reading next month.
“It was painful. More painful than it really needed to be,” Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said, noting that the budget process began at the end of March.
“That’s more than adequate time to deal with this,” he said. “It’s not like we were looking for ways to cut. We have a surplus. I’ve never seen such a fight over a surplus. You usually see fights over cuts.”
Seven votes are required for budget and tax rate decisions, and the commission was at less than 13 members for Monday’s session. Commissioners Mark Billingsley and David Reaves were on family vacations out of town. A third absent commissioner, Eddie Jones, showed up in the midst of a tumultuous commission debate after earlier votes in which an amended operating budget and the capital budget were each voted down. Each fell one vote short of the seven votes necessary to pass.
Commission backers of a bid to cut a penny from the property tax rate, Terry Roland and Heidi Shafer, didn’t have the votes to pass that. But with three commissioners absent they had enough votes to deny the passage of the two budgets and the stable tax rate on second reading.
Jones’ presence set off frenzied parliamentary maneuvering on both sides of the effort to bring the two items back up for reconsideration.
At one point, commission chairman Justin Ford and commissioner George Chism as well as Roland and Shafer walked out of the meeting in an attempt to leave the commission without a quorum and unable to conduct business. But the walkout fizzled as seven commissioners – a quorum – were left in the chamber.
The seven remaining quickly made commissioner Walter Bailey the temporary chairman but before they could vote on reconsidered budget items, the four quickly reappeared and took their seats again.
Shafer questioned closely the ability of both sides to introduce amendments that would make the budget proposals substantially different enough to vote on new versions immediately or face waiting three months under commission rules.
Luttrell watched grimly as the commission explored the idea of passing a continuation budget and it too was voted down.
He and Roland crossed swords when Roland said Luttrell’s suggestion of the $6 million surplus limit for new spending was to blame for the political gridlock.
“When you do that everybody in the world that’s wanting some of that money comes out,” Roland said. “It’s kind of like it poisons the well.”
Luttrell called the comment “irresponsible.”
“That’s really a big part of your job,” Luttrell said of the commission’s budget responsibilities. “I will admit it created consternation beyond anything I ever anticipated.”
Luttrell’s dissatisfaction turned to negotiation among several caucuses in the commission chambers during a recess in the meeting.
The negotiations were over what funding to reduce to get under the $6 million surplus amount that Luttrell set early in the budget season as the limit on additional items the commission might want to add.
County commissioner Van Turner started where the operating budget amendment submitted by commissioner Steve Basar went down in defeat. Turner went back to the original set of budget amendments recommended in budget committee a week ago and began shaving dollar amounts of under $1 million from four areas to come in under the $6 million surplus.
Turner described the commission session as “long” and “combative.”
And there were signs that it wore down all sides in the vocal dispute.
“Are you confident enough to vote on this?” Roland asked Turner at one point. “If you are then I guess it’s time to quit fighting.”
Nevertheless, he and Shafer voted against his amendment.
Turner said the move for a one-cent rollback in the property tax rate was a major factor in the series of votes before Jones’ arrival.
“I don’t know that we can’t do that in the future,” he said of the rollback. “It may be something that can be done in the future… But it just wasn’t anything that we could do today.”