VOL. 131 | NO. 148 | Tuesday, July 26, 2016
County Leaders Face New Budget Anxiety
By Bill Dries
Shelby County commissioners meet in special session Wednesday, July 23, to cross the last “t” of the spring budget season some 27 days after the start of the new fiscal year.
That’s “t” for taxes.
The commission takes a third and final vote Wednesday at noon on a stable $4.37 county property tax rate.
The budget seasons for city and county governments begin with budget proposals presented by mayors to legislative bodies – the city council and county commission.
But the preparation begins about the time the administrations are closing the books on the fiscal year that ended June 30.
And it begins with anxiety about the unknowns.
“I’m a little bit uncomfortable that we had to dip into fund balance,” Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said on the WKNO TV program Behind The Headlines that aired this past weekend.
He is referring to the $8 million used from the county’s reserve fund.
To Luttrell it “means we are living beyond our means somewhat.” And Luttrell says much of the one-time reserve fund spending is going to fund recurring expenses.
Shelby County Commission budget committee chairman Van Turner has some level of discomfort, but probably not as much as Luttrell given the increase in funding to local public education that he and a majority of the commission favored.
“The people saw the sausage being made and sometimes it can get a little uncomfortable,” Turner said. “Pushing everyone past their comfort level is probably good. I don’t think this should be a pattern, hopefully it won’t be a pattern going forward.”
Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir termed the reserve spending “a step down a bad road.”
“How far we are down it I guess is yet to be determined,” he said. “Anytime you dip into the savings account and use tomorrow’s money for today’s expenses, it’s concerning.”
Behind the Headlines, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.
Lenoir says the local economy is strong enough that private sector investment has returned from the deep and lingering shadow of the national recession.
“There’s no doubt there’s a lot of private sector investment,” he said. “Will it equate to $8 million is yet to be seen. We still deal with the challenges of blight and poverty within our community. It’s hard to make decisions today on sort of potential promises of the future.”
But Turner points out there are other recurring expenses within county government that could be cut before taking back the funding Shelby County Schools in particular got in a budget season in which school funding was the most visible issue.
“It’s obvious that the changing dynamics of the Shelby County Schools system are going to require some real re-engineering of the whole budget process to determine a strong baseline of sustainability going forward,” he said.
Luttrell points out that the county’s “maintenance of effort” – the amount of local funding it must provide for public school districts by state law – is set with the budget that began this month.
“It’s set with the budget,” he said when asked if any further calculation is required by state officials.
By state law, that amount of funding – $419.4 million out of a county consolidated budget of $1.1 billion – cannot be reduced except for a drop in school district attendance.
SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the school system will likely drop in enrollment at least into the next school year and has 27,000 more seats than students at this point.
But Shelby County government also funds the county’s six suburban public school districts and county funding for all seven of the school systems is divided based on their average daily attendance.
“If they are leaving Shelby County Schools, they may be going to the Bartlett or Collierville or Germantown school systems,” he said. “So it just moves the money from Shelby County Schools to one of the municipal school systems.”
Turner says decreases for attendance drops aren’t automatic. And he says there are other parts of the county’s budget that don’t have the protection education funding has.
“I don’t know if state law would suggest or demand that we continue that same money going to those departments year in and year out,” he said. “I’m hoping those departments can create more efficiencies going forward and there wouldn’t be a need for recurring costs to go to the Sheriffs’office or the (District Attorney)’s office. I don’t think there would be any state law in place to force us to still continue to give them the funds.”
The commission rejected full funding of the request that District Attorney General Amy Weirich made for her office to process video from Memphis Police body cameras and patrol car cameras.
Turner says that is an example of a place where efficiencies could be found.
“It seems to me that the Sheriff’s office approach didn’t call on as many bodies to sort of review the footage and to process the paperwork,” he added. “If the Sheriff’s office and the Memphis Police Department got together, there’s probably a way to create more efficiencies and have a one-step type of rule book for how you do this. I think they could cut some of the cost as well.”