VOL. 130 | NO. 178 | Monday, September 14, 2015
Luttrell Pushes Budget Summit for New Commission Chair
By Bill Dries
When Shelby County Commissioners meet Monday, Sept. 14, the group will have a new chairman – but not a permanent one – and will try to set a date for a budget summit.
Chairman pro tempore Van Turner will be the acting head as the 13-member body tries to do what it couldn’t at its Aug. 10 meeting: elect a leader for the next year. Outgoing chairman Justin Ford’s one-year term ended Sept. 1.
On the Sept. 11 episode of “Behind the Headlines,” Mark Luttrell pushes for a budget summit.
The commission meets at 3 p.m. at the Vasco Smith Administration Building, 160 N. Main St. Follow @tdnpols, twitter.com/tdnpols, for live coverage of the session.
At the August meeting, Republican commissioner Steve Basar was elected chairman after six rounds of voting, putting together a seven-vote majority that included most of the seven Democrats on the body. Turner was then elected chairman pro tempore.
But later in the meeting, Democratic commissioner Eddie Jones, who was among those voting for Basar in the final round, moved to reconsider the chairman’s vote. That led to three more rounds of voting in which neither Basar nor Republican Terry Roland got enough votes to claim the chairmanship.
The commission delayed any further votes on the matter until Monday’s meeting, skipping the Aug. 24 commission session because all 13 members were not present.
However the chairmanship vote plays out, the new leader of the body will open their one-year term with a call by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell for a budget summit.
Luttrell said the summit is “an opportunity to clear the air” after an intense end to the county’s budget season in June. Commissioners scrapped with each other, and at times with Luttrell, over how to spend a $6 million budget surplus for the fiscal year that started July 1. After the budget was set, Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir brought in an additional $22 million in tax revenue for county government, and some commissioners weren’t happy about the timing of the new revenue figures.
“It’s an opportunity for us to assess what we have done,” Luttrell said of the summit on the Sept. 11 episode of WKNO-TV’s “Behind the Headlines.” “This was a budget season that had a lot of discussion and a lot of questions that were raised.”
The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.
Turner, who was also on the show, thinks the summit is a good idea.
“I think the summit will allow us to see what we agree on … and see how we address those concerns first,” he said.
But there is likely to be some disagreement on what to do with the higher revenue collections, which Lenoir attributes to an economic upswing and growth nationally.
Some on the commission, notably Roland, Mark Billingsley and Heidi Shafer, pushed for a property tax rollback using some of the $6 million surplus.
Lenoir has wondered aloud about a possible phase-out of the county’s wheel tax.
“If we eliminate the wheel tax, we’ve still got to come up with $30 million to give to education,” Luttrell said. “If our economy can make a huge swing for the better and can start generating more in that area, then I think that certainly the wheel tax might be a consideration. But I think it’s too far in the future for us to consider that at this time.”
Luttrell also said the additional $22 million in tax collections is more than just revenue for the county’s general fund. Part of it goes to pay the county’s bond debt of more than $1 billion. And $10 million of it was used for education funding in place of $10 million in wheel tax revenue.
“I do believe that our taxes are too high, but I don’t believe it is taxes that are driving people out of our community,” Luttrell said. “I would like to see our tax rate cut down, and I think that if we can continue to grow our economy … if things are still robust and we still see growth, we can look at things like the wheel tax.”
Luttrell’s point on whether the property tax rate is causing Shelby County residents to leave is the same stance he’s taken with Greater Memphis Chamber leaders who say the tax rate is a factor in population loss, particularly within Memphis.
“As far as people counting the headlights as they move out of Shelby County, it’s not that,” Luttrell said. “What I think it is more than anything else … is comprehensively the livability of our community – which covers everything from crime to education to health care and jobs to poverty to any number of social issues.”