VOL. 131 | NO. 219 | Wednesday, November 2, 2016
Commissioners Clash on Pot and PILOT
By Bill Dries
A pot ordinance for unincorporated areas of Shelby County got only four votes Monday, Oct. 31, from the county commission but still advanced to second reading, and commissioners could not agree on a resolution opposing a Nov. 8 ballot question that would shift MLGW funds to the city of Memphis.
The first of three readings to allow Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies the option to write a ticket with a $50 fine for possession of half an ounce or less of marijuana failed on a 4-7 commission vote after a lengthy debate.
The ordinance still advances to second and third readings.
It would apply only to unincorporated Shelby County and matches an ordinance approved by the Memphis City Council Oct. 4 that applies to the city of Memphis.
The commission debate mirrored the city council debate, with proponents saying the shift from a criminal to a civil process would promote larger changes in the criminal justice system.
Opponents said they understood the intention, but that neither they nor their constituents favored the measure because it sends the wrong message.
“We’re not saying go out and smoke as much pot as you can,” said commissioner Van Turner, co-sponsor of the measure with Reginald Milton. “What we’re trying to do is a noble thing.”
Commissioner Heidi Shafer argued that giving law enforcement the option would increase racial disparities in who is charged and who is ticketed.
“The people who might already be getting the benefit of the doubt are going to be more likely to get the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “It feeds that whole sense that the law is not fair. … Justice is supposed to be even and it’s supposed to be blind. What this is doing instead is making it more difficult and subjective.”
Commissioner Mark Billingsley quoted a street value of $3,000 for half an ounce of pot in a marketplace that has no rules.
“You are buying from a drug dealer – a drug dealer who will kill you if you cross him,” he said. “How many people have been killed over half an ounce, $3,000 worth, of marijuana? I would argue quite a few in Memphis and Shelby County.”
Billingsley and Shafer said they would support a better expungement process to wipe clean the criminal records of first-time misdemeanor offenders to remove the stigma that could keep them from getting a job for years after being arrested.
Meanwhile, commissioners couldn’t come up with seven votes, much less a unanimous vote, on a resolution opposing the November ballot question that would shift in-lieu-of-tax payments by Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division from the county to the city of Memphis.
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell opposes the proposed city charter amendment which, if passed, would mean $5 million more in PILOT payments to the city from MLGW and $5 million less in PILOT payments to county government.
Four of the seven commissioners still present at the end of Monday’s commission meeting voted for the resolution of opposition put forth by Billingsley.
Commissioner Terry Roland, who abstained, thought voters might mistake the resolution as urging them to also vote no on a county charter amendment that would require commission approval for the mayor to fire the county attorney.
“I’m a little bit speechless that we can’t agree on this,” Billingsley said.
Milton and Shafer voted against the resolution on the MLGW PILOT payments; voting for the resolution were Billingsley, Willie Brooks, Steve Basar and commission chairman Melvin Burgess.
Luttrell has also come out against the county attorney ballot proposal. Roland backs the idea – a dispute between some commissioners and the mayor that has several other fronts.
On one of those other fronts, Roland pulled second reading of his ordinance Monday that would have put assistant county attorneys under the county’s civil service system, which would have made it more difficult for a mayor to dismiss them.
In other business on Monday, the commission:
• Advanced an ordinance on second reading to raise the pay of Shelby County Schools board members to $25,000 a year and $26,000 for the school board chairman. It fell short of the nine votes needed, garnering only seven. Pay raises and tax hikes require a two-thirds majority. The ordinance moves to a third reading.
• Approved economic impact plans that set in motion two tax increment finance – or TIF – zones for the University District bordering the University of Memphis and the Lake District on the site of the Belz Factory Outlet Mall in Lakeland.
TIF zones capture incremental property tax revenue – city and county – generated by development in the zones and applies that revenue to public infrastructure for the development.
The city of Memphis has already approved the TIF for the University District.