Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Kamikaze Councilman

Shea Flinn’s proposed tax increase will likely flop, but he’s game.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 20, 2011 at 10:26 AM

Shea Flinn says he doesn't care that much if he winds up being a one-term member of the Memphis City Council.

Paraphrasing a line from the television show Beverly Hills 90210, "May the fires from the bridges that I burn light my way home," he said, Tuesday, a few hours before he planned to propose a one-time 39-cent property tax assessment to repay an overdue court-ordered debt to Memphis City Schools.

"Make no mistake, this thing is going down in flames," he said of the prospects for his proposal. He also suggested he might form a "Kamikaze Party" to put forth budget alternatives that are unpopular but, in his mind, honest answers rather than evasions.

The Rhodes College graduate and son of former Shelby County commissioner George Flinn has been arguing for most of his four-year term that there are two ways to balance the budget and pay the schools obligation, neither of them attractive: a property tax increase or bigger spending and personnel cuts than the council and mayor have so far been willing to make.

Flinn and his fellow council members, along with Mayor Wharton, are up for reelection this year. Defying standard practice, Flinn said this is exactly the right time to make hard choices.

His proposed tax increase would raise $40 million, which, combined with other measures proposed by the mayor, would settle a three-year-old dispute with MCS. The shortfall was of the council's own making. When Flinn and other newcomers came aboard in 2008, they cut city supplemental funding for schools in hopes that Shelby County would take it over.

That was Plan A.

Not so fast, said MCS. You owe us the money.

Plan B was going to court. Three courts restated the city's duty to "maintenance of effort" in school funding.

Plan C was negotiating a lower amount or paying it win installments. No dice, said MCS. We need the money and we need it yesterday.

Plan D was surrendering the MCS charter, which the city council, MCS board members, and Memphis voters approved in separate actions over the last five months. But the outcome of that will be decided either in court or in mediation.

Now that it is time to set the budget, Flinn has seen and heard enough. A special tax assessment would settle the MCS back payment once and for all. Then the council could have an honest debate about the budget and taxes and future payments to MCS.

"Everybody knows taxes are going up, and they're trying to get through this election year without doing it," he said.

Alternately, he believes, the council must privatize the sanitation department or make cuts in the fire department. The council has not been willing to do either of those things in the past.

Wharton hopes to balance the budget with layoffs of 125 employees, benefit cuts, and reduced hours at some public libraries and community centers. Also on the table are a couple of transactions involving selling the city's delinquent tax rolls and parking meter revenues for a one-time payment. The mayor was scheduled to make his budget presentation to the full council on Tuesday afternoon. He was not expected to recommend a tax increase, although he has previously said that a special tax assessment might be required to pay the MCS bill.

The current city tax rate is $3.19, so 39 cents would be a 12 percent increase. Memphians pay a combined city and county tax rate of $7.21, compared to $4.13 in Nashville/Davidson County, $5.46 in Germantown, $5.20 in Collierville, and $5.51 in Bartlett.

"How much higher can our taxes be than Nashville's and we still survive?" Flinn asked.

He may not care whether he stays on the city council, but Memphians should. Flinn is one of the council's best, brightest, and bravest members. The city can't balance its budget with pawn-shop financing, 125 layoffs in a workforce of over 6,500 employees, trying to buy time and concessions from MCS, or waiting for a federal judge or mediator to order Shelby County to take on more funding.

Hard choices have to be made, and this election year is the time to do it.

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