VOL. 132 | NO. 138 | Thursday, July 13, 2017
County Commission Leans Back to $4.13 Tax Rate
By Bill Dries
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell talks with reporters after a committee meeting Wednesday, July 12. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)
Shelby County Commissioners took a step Wednesday, July 12, toward taking back a 3-cent cut in the county property tax rate.
And in the budget committee session, commissioners favoring the tax cut to a $4.10 tax rate said they would reopen this week’s contentious budget debate if the $4.13 tax rate appears to have traction when the full commission meets Monday, July 17.
The 5-4 budget committee vote is not binding on the full 13-member commission. But with nine of the 13 commissioners voting, it does indicate how close the vote on the matter Monday could be.
The amendment to the $4.13 rate by commissioner Walter Bailey means next week’s vote on the tax rate by the full commission would not be the final vote.
Acting budget committee chairman Van Turner said the commission could call a special meeting two days later to take the final tax rate vote. Turner added that means Monday’s session could produce some compromise.
“We can work it out Monday,” he told commissioners. “I don’t view this as the end of it.”
Those favoring a 3-cent tax reduction said a tax cut is overdue and that constituents are vocal about the need for a tax cut.
“It at least shows some fiscal discipline and some balance,” said commissioner Heidi Shafer, who proposed the cut. “That’s the problem with government. Sometimes we get kind of snooty and we think that we know how to spend money better than the people do.”
Bailey said that “borders on pandering” and termed the argument a “false narrative.”
“Nothing would be more demonstrative of appreciation for our citizens than providing them needed services,” he said. “That’s what the citizens want. I don’t hear a clamoring for ‘Give us a $5- or $10-a-year tax relief.’ … They want services. And that’s where we fail.”
“This is a true narrative,” commissioner Terry Roland said by way of response to Bailey. “You live up on the hill with these rich folks. You need to come on down to north Shelby County where folks like I have to live.”
The $4.13 county property tax rate is the certified rate for the county taking into account the 2017 countywide reappraisal of property for tax purposes. That means the rate is calculated to produce the same amount of revenue for county government as the existing, pre-reappraisal rate of $4.37 produces.
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell proposed a $1.2 billion county budget based on a $4.13 rate and had planned to use 3 cents of it to create a county “pay-as-you-go” fund to pay for smaller capital projects instead of using bonds to finance those projects.
Commissioners favoring the cut targeted the pay-as-you-go proposal to instead reduce the rate.
The passage of a budget this week by the commission that rearranged and amended Luttrell’s plan and added $1.4 million is based on a $4.10 rate. Luttrell said his administration can make that work without affecting county services, but again Wednesday expressed hope that the commission would restore the pay-as-you-go proposal.
If the $4.13 rate has a majority on the commission, commissioner Mark Billingsley said he will push to undo funding the commission approved but didn’t finalize to hire 25 new Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies to patrol in Memphis. He would also work to undo grant funding that is allocated evenly among commissioners for them to propose where that money goes. The commission increased the grant allocation in the budget approved earlier this week.
“If we cannot give back to the citizens of Shelby County … I will back away … from putting more deputies on our streets,” Billingsley said. “If we cannot do that today I will be as vocal as I can on grants, on additional deputies. It will be across the board. I cannot support the fluff. That is fluff and y’all know it’s fluff. We really have the right to give away grant money?”
A reconsideration vote on the budget approved Monday, however, isn’t possible under commission rules.
To back up their very different positions on the tax rate, Bailey and Billingsley each cited the thousands of people lined up this past weekend at Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division kiosks when a false rumor spread that Memphis Grizzlies star Zach Randolph was paying utility bills for customers.
“It should have given pause to all of us when we see 20,000 people that are running to get in line to pay their utility bill,” said Billingsley. “We have people who are choosing – do they pay their utility bill, do they pay their taxes, do they get their drugs. Sometimes they can’t get their drugs. Three cents on the tax rate is going to mean a few bucks to our citizens.”
Bailey said the MLGW hoax shows why there should not be a property tax cut.
“They rely on government,” he said. “These people need government help. Government help is what helps the community to prosper.”
There were also some early indications of a middle ground between $4.10 and $4.13.
Commissioner Reginald Milton cited the impact of a possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the Republican health care plan pending in Congress on Regional One Health, which is funded by the county.
“We need consistency,” he said. “I’m open, but there must be give and take. Don’t be hard line. Loosen up. Otherwise, I can’t go there.”