VOL. 132 | NO. 153 | Thursday, August 3, 2017
Heidi Shafer Claims Commission Chairmanship With Consistency
By Bill Dries
Heidi Shafer was first elected to the Shelby County Commission in 2010. But when she is talking about the way county government works, she often goes further back than that to her experience as an aide to her predecessor on the commission, Dr. George Flinn.
While serving as chief marketing officer for The Flinn Clinic, a position she still holds with the medical practice of seven offices, she was also frequently at commission sessions watching closely the internal workings of the legislative body.
It put Shafer ahead of the learning curve that comes shortly after a citizen wins a seat on the commission and is greeted with a torrent of introductions, meeting requests and elevator pitches from political players who may not have given them the time of day before the votes were counted.
Past commissioner Deidre Malone once estimated that it takes a newly elected commissioner about half of a first term to become adept at the inner workings of a group whose more experienced members move quicker and use that to their advantage.
Heidi Shafer, the incoming chairwoman of the Shelby County Commission, is a veteran of the county legislative body who watched how it worked for years before she won election to it. (Daily News File/Houston Cofield)
Before that, Shafer was involved in the unsuccessful 2000 effort to put the financing of FedExForum to voters in a referendum, and she remains an advocate of such ballot questions.
Shafer, who is serving her second term on the commission, was elected chairwoman of the 13-member body this week for a one-year term that starts in September. She will lead the body for the last year of the group’s current four-year term of office.
Shafer was elected unanimously without opposition Monday, July 31, as was commissioner Willie Brooks, who becomes chairman pro tempore in September.
“What I’m looking forward to is moving forward together, building on some of the successes we’ve had in the past and streamlining some of the work and the load in the commission office,” Shafer said following her selection. “It’s hard in a government bureaucratic office to get the work moved through efficiently. That’s one of the things I do in my private sector job is I streamline things so that the work flows through better.”
Those are essentially the nuts-and-bolts duties of what the chair oversees on the county commission. There is some discretion involved in terms of what the commission considers. But most of the job is overseeing the points at which 13 separate and distinct political personalities with different ideas on different topics meet.
That might also involve getting Wednesday committee sessions to end and begin closer to the times listed on the committee agenda.
Shafer, as budget committee chairwoman, ran a tight ship when it came to discussions and getting questions answered.
Nevertheless, Shafer, a Republican, faced opposition in 2013 from commissioner Walter Bailey, a Democrat, when chairman James Harvey named her to head what is certainly a key committee assignment if not the most important on the body.
Bailey even went as far as moving to replace her as budget committee chair, and put it to a vote – losing in the attempt on a 5-7 vote.
“I do take issue with her politics,” Bailey said before the vote, referring to Shafer’s fiscal conservatism in particular. “Her politics had her vigorously fight to decrease the tax rate. … It was irresponsible. It suggests to me that her approach would not be in the best interest of a sound county government budget process.”
Shafer and other Republicans have taken issue over the years with Bailey’s equally well-defined position on taxes. Bailey has consistently proposed raising the property tax rate to provide more services. Bailey contends those services are what constituents want, not a tax cut.
Shafer was budget committee chairwoman for two consecutive years. In those years, she moved the committee away from a strict line-by-line review of the budget to a process that involves revenue estimates during the year before budget season and periodic updates from the administration through the fiscal quarters.
When Shafer was elected chairwoman of the entire commission this week, it was with Bailey’s vote and a post-vote endorsement.
“Commissioner Shafer has really evolved from what I consider to be a partisan position,” he said.
Shafer has argued consistently from budget season to budget season that county budget surpluses are an indication that commissioners need to return tax revenue to taxpayers in the form of a lower property tax rate.
She proposed the initial 3-cent cut in the new certified county property tax rate this budget season that ended up being a 2-cent property tax reduction to $4.11. The rate was approved with a bipartisan vote of the commission.
Shafer has also sought to better define the commission’s oversight role that has, at times, clashed intensely with Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.
Luttrell has repeatedly said it’s not personal and that the two entities are part of an “adversarial” system of government.
Shafer agrees, but uses slightly different terms.
“It’s a competitive form of government. I used to call it a full-contact sport,” she said. “One of my goals will be to really move seamlessly to try to rebuild some of those relationships. This will be the last term of this commission and I’d like to see us all be able to finish strong, do the work that the taxpayers need us to do and finish it and do it in a way where we can all move together. Easier said than done. But I think we can rebuild some alliances.”