VOL. 132 | NO. 139 | Friday, July 14, 2017
County Budget Talks Reveal Political Divide
By Bill Dries
Recent budget discussions among Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and county commissioners reveal differing philosophies on government’s role. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)
When Shelby County Commissioners convene Monday, July 17, it will be their third meeting in a week – following committee sessions Wednesday and the special meeting to approve a county operating budget two days before that.
It’s been a rough week, with a $1.2 billion county government budget winning approval at the end of the seven-hour special meeting. And the budget works with either a $4.10 or $4.13 county property tax rate, according to Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.
The changes commissioners made added $1.4 million more net, a relatively minor amount given the overall size of the county budget.
But the debate over those changes, along with the equally sharp discussion Wednesday over whether to amend the tax ordinance from a $4.10 rate to $4.13, are reminders of the very different philosophies the 13 commission members and Luttrell have about the role of local government.
“Rich people don’t need government,” commissioner Walter Bailey said at the height of Wednesday’s committee debate about his move to amend up to a $4.13 tax rate. “It is the working class, the middle class, the poor people who need government services. … We can’t afford to have taxes decrease.”
Commissioner Mark Billingsley called on taxpayers across the county to tell commissioners, “You don’t have any more money to give to government.”
“We have given our ample amount, commissioner Bailey,” Billingsley said. “We can’t stand up for the poor for a 3-cent tax cut? Shame on us. … The citizens of Shelby County need to know we have a great opportunity here to cut taxes but we won’t do it.”
Commissioner Terry Roland joined Billingsley in vowing to go back into the budget approved Monday if $4.13 prevails and try to undo $3.2 million in funding for 25 more sheriff’s deputies to patrol the city and do away with $1.9 million in grant funding allocated equally among each of the 13 commissioners.
That may be easier said than done. Some commissioners questioned Monday whether they could vote for the budget and then move for reconsideration later. They can’t. But the funding for the additional deputies was restricted until there is a plan. A move to kill the grants entirely was voted down.
The discussion Monday about additional deputies working with Memphis Police revealed a longstanding political fault line about what city government funds vs. what county government funds.
Commissioner Heidi Shafer expressed her concern about “us charging in on our white horse to save the day.”
“Memphis has not stood in my opinion behind its police force the way I think it should have,” she said. “We want to scoop it up and we want to fix. We see what’s going on.”
Shafer says some of the suburban mayors have contacted her about having more deputies patrol in their towns and cities and augment their police departments.
Commissioner David Reaves accused Memphis city government of trying to “offload more and more of its services.”
“It’s become apparent the goal is probably to get rid of the Memphis Police Department,” he said. “We are not the city of Memphis. They are in the police business.”
Commissioner Eddie Jones said city residents pay county taxes too.
“They pay their county taxes. And it pays for places they don’t want to be and people they don’t want to see,” Jones said, referring to the county-funded jail and Regional One Health, along with county offices that collect and assess taxes. “Every day in my district there’s a violent crime. … They want something done. They pay county taxes too.”
Two fiscal years ago, the commission approved $1.3 million in funding for grants that previously had been recommended by the mayor in the county budget, with some amendments by commissioners in the budget process.
The commission’s new plan allocated $100,000 for each commissioner to propose grants to nonprofit charitable groups, with the full commission voting on the funding request of that commissioner or a group of commissioners pooling their allocations.
In the budget approved Monday, the commission boosted the allocation by $50,000 each for $650,000 in additional grant funding, making a total of $1.9 million.
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has always been concerned about the safeguards and accountability for the grants made. And those concerns resurfaced prominently this week.
“We are treading on some very thin ice when we start moving money around the way it’s being moved around with these grants,” he said. And he referred generally to past county elected leaders who have gone to jail for corruption.
“I see no major problem. … I think it’s a far more efficient way of doing it,” said commissioner Reginald Milton, who pushed for the change in how grants are awarded. “I don’t think any of you are going to jail for any of this.”
Commissioners also clashed along familiar rhetorical lines over an unsuccessful move for direct county funding of additional Boys & Girls Clubs locations in schools contingent on Shelby County Schools funding.
“These kids do not need it in the municipalities,” commission chairman Melvin Burgess said. “You don’t need it. But we need it to help our kids. … Every year we beg for money for the inner city. When are we going to make this right?”
The administration said county funding would add to the county’s maintenance of effort for schools funding – the minimum amount the state says a county must use to fund schools.
Commissioner Terry Roland said the school system should use its reserve funds.
“When you’ve got $80 million and you ask for $1.6 million, that ain’t begging. That’s conniving,” he said.
Luttrell also had a problem with an unsuccessful move by commissioner Willie Brooks to consolidate the positions of deputy jailers and county corrections officers in line with recently received recommendations from a county government compensation study.
Prior to being elected mayor in 2010, Luttrell served as county sheriff for eight years, with running the Shelby County Jail among his chief responsibilities. Before that, he was a veteran corrections official with the federal prison system who had started his public service career at the Shelby County Penal Farm.
“I’m the only one in this room who has worked every corrections facility in this city,” is how he put it as he began to say there is a difference in the two jobs.
“They are not equal,” he said. “As long as I’m mayor they will never be. I know, I’ve worked them.”
County chief administrative officer Harvey Kennedy, who was Luttrell’s CAO as sheriff and in a similar position at the county corrections center, was also adamant.
“There’s a world of difference when you see what’s coming in the back door and the condition they are in,” Kennedy said. “The corrections center is an infinitely easier and safer place.”