Thursday, August 16, 2001

Getting a Fit

Monday's county commission meeting pointed up the art of compromise.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 16, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Monday's meeting of the Shelby County Commission was a textbook exercise in how an agreement can be reached across ideological, party, and even racial divides. It had as many false bottoms as Houdini's hideaway, and it finally opened out in a formula that could be both a short-term and a long-term solution to the vexing problem of school funding in Shelby County.

The marathon session, which began at about 2 p.m. and was extended until roughly 7 p.m., saw two things occur that were in short supply when the Tennessee legislature was faced with a similar situation in the last several weeks: 1) Exponents of seemingly hard and fast positions relaxed their rigidity and accepted proposals which they had pronounced as anathema; and 2) they did so at a certain political risk to themselves.

When proceedings began, Commissioners Walter Bailey, Julian Bolton, Michael Hooks, James Ford, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Bridget Chisholm took positions diametrically opposed to the raising of the county's wheel tax. As representatives of Memphis' African-American community, which is mainly working-class and has a high rate of poverty, historically, these Democratic member were well within their rights to do so.

As they pointed out, a wheel tax -- which applies the same fees to all vehicles, be they Rolls Royces or eight-year-old Chevettes -- is inherently regressive and particularly odious to residents of less well-to-do neighborhoods.

The measure at hand, proposed by Commissioner Tommy Hart, would essentially double the current wheel tax on every class of vehicle except those related to church functions. Hart initially suggested action on the wheel tax some weeks back, as a means whereby the commission could explore a funding formula more diversified is permitted by a single-minded focus on the county property tax, historically the way in which the commission has raised new revenues.

Hart and his colleague Buck Wellford have argued relentlessly that overreliance on the property tax is an injustice to people, especially the elderly, on fixed incomes. This position, too, was a legitimate one from the point of view of the two Republican commissioners and their largely middle-class, suburban home-owners.

What the property tax does offer, as an ad valorem (value-sensitive) means of taxation, is some degree of progressivity. Clearly, the owner of a $400,000 house will pay more than someone who owns a $75,000 dwelling.

The two sides each had stated their positions, which would remain fixed through several hours of debate back and forth. More or less for symbolic reasons, Wellford and Hart held back on the initial efforts to raise the property tax by 33 cents per $100 of assessed value, up from $3.53. Superintendent James Mitchell and county school board president David Pickler had earlier made the case, as they have repeatedly in recent weeks, that this increase would not go nearly far enough toward meeting the school system's immediate needs and that drastic layoffs in teaching faculty and in parts of the curriculum would occur.

Hart and Wellford essentially agreed but held out for diversification of funding.

Meanwhile, the black commissioners were equally unrelenting in opposition to a hike in the wheel tax. There was one exception in budget chairman Cleo Kirk, who early on had professed that he, too, disdained the wheel tax but that the need for proper school funding was so great that he would hold his nose and vote for the wheel-tax increase. (He got the first sustained round of applause from the roomful of mainly tax proponents for his position.)

At one point in the prolonged back-and-forth, which produced recorded votes too numerous to recall without a calculator (including that rarity on a government body, a vote to adjourn which was rejected!), the wheel tax had gained enough new proponents that only chairman Ford, whose vote is the last in a roll call to be recorded, stood between it and the nine votes it required.

But it failed, and the commission, having approved a 33-cent property tax increase, went on to other matters. An unexpected initiative from Bailey to reconsider the wheel tax opened up new possibilities, however, and, after several huddled conversations (including one in which several commissioners say one of their colleagues made an improper offer to switch his vote in return for favorable consideration on a development proposal rejected earlier), a new round of voting ensued.

The long and the short was that Wellford, Hart, and another initially reluctant commissioner, Morris Hart, not only endorsed a 33-cent property tax increase but went up to one of 43 cents. For their part, Bailey and Ford made last-minute reversals of their opposition to Hart's wheel-tax proposal. (Chisholm had earlier done so.)

Presto! A budget resolution which the county school officials pronounced almost satisfactory, particularly in light of a third proposal, offered by Wellford. This was a resolution asking Shelby County's municipalities to formally waive their rights to use any extension of the local-option sales tax for a purpose other than school funding. That could result in $50 million of new funding, which all by itself could fix the school problem permanently, Wellford said.

(Pickler had earlier pronounced the proposal "political suicide" for politicians in the municipalities to embrace but was coaxed by Wellford into a promise to campaign for the proposal with the selfsame politicians.)

™ Opinions differ as to why Shelby County mayor Jim Rout chose not to run for reelection next year. Rout himself offered "family" considerations as the predominant ones. Some maintain that the mayor simply recognized the enormity of the county's long-term fiscal dilemma and wanted no more of it. (Some measure of how volatile that consideration might be came from Pickler, who -- without mentioning Rout -- condemned in an interview before Monday's meeting the "catastrophic policy" of the four-year hiatus in property-tax increases from 1994 to 1998 and the wholesale awarding of PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) prerogatives to new industries.)

There are some observers, too, who maintain that Rout had consulted polls which showed him losing in 2002 to a high-profile Democratic nominee.

Word comes from the mayor's camp that the latter was not the case, that such polls as had been commissioned and analyzed showed Rout overcoming any of several likely Democratic opponents by a 4- or 5-point margin.

Of course, that's the usual spread assigned to the margin of error in most polls.

Probate Court Clerk Chris Thomas has made a point lately of advertising his availability for the office of Shelby County mayor. Shortly before Rout's announcement of non-candidacy last month, hints of his interest in running were communicated from sources that were anonymous but clearly close to Thomas

The Probate clerk's prominent -- and early -- presence at Rout's announcement ceremony, while a neutral fact in and of itself, compounded speculation about Thomas' plans. So it was no surprise that Thomas announced the official creation of an exploratory committee last week.

In his appearance Saturday before the arch-conservative regulars at the Dutch Treat Luncheon at the Audubon Cafe on Park Avenue, Thomas styled himself a "total conservative" (i.e., in both the fiscal and social senses), and therein lies his dilemma. With the voting population of Shelby County split so visibly right down the middle between Republicans (mostly white) and Democrats (mostly black), a premium is necessarily placed on a candidate's ability to capture cross-over votes.

Thomas indicated his awareness of that when, faced with a question from the Dutch Treat audience about the school funding issue, he gave a reply that closed no doors.

But he will stay reasonably close to his ideological base -- both for strategic and ideological reasons. Still in his 30s, Thomas is something of a true believer, a Golden Boy of the Right. For years he backed the presidential ambitions of Pat Buchanan, as an example, and, during his tenure on the Memphis school board, as he recounted Saturday, he was an outspoken advocate for the idea of "moral" instruction in the public schools.

Not only might his orientation (which Thomas and his supporters would prefer to see as adherence to principle) restrict his natural constituency, he has another problem on his hands.

Shelby County Commissioner Marilyn Loeffel, Thomas' only conceivable rival for the affections of Shelby County's arch-conservative population, is herself still thinking of a mayoral race. Moreover, Thomas' professions of interest had not, as of last week, anyhow, dissuaded her from such thoughts.

Clearly, the presence of both Loeffel and Thomas in next year's Republican primary would seem to nullify the hopes of either in that a dual candidacy would clearly fracture the common ideological base of support.

Loeffel, however, thinks that she has outgrown such typecasting in the three years since her election to the commission as a spokesperson for Cordova and its dominant streak of conservative populism.

"The opportunity to serve on a body that considers the point of view of all segments is a broadening experience," Loeffel maintained recently. "You begin to see things from other people's perspectives, and you have to keep in mind what serves the greater interests of the community."

That sounds like the rhetoric of a candidate who thinks she can escape her political label well enough to capture middle-of-the-road votes. She, after all, is a woman, and recent elections -- particularly judicial ones -- have seemed to demonstrate that there is a women's voting bloc significantly greater than the number of voters who have a knee-jerk aversion to a woman's serving in office.

But her voting record on the commission may serve to limit her voter potential as severely as Thomas' ideological pronouncements might limit his. Loeffel has become so predictable a "No" vote on fiscal issues that every new utterance of the N-word, coupled with a characteristic bob of the head, seems to be a video replay of the all the ones that have gone before.

And Chairman Ford's insistence on pronouncing her name "low-full," instead of the correct "lef-ful," which he must have heard several hundred times, may be at least a sidewise indication that something about her doesn't dig as deeply into public consciousness as a mainstream candidate would need to.

™ A sleeper candidate -- but one who, on the strength of his recent achievements, should be taken seriously -- is Commissioner Hart, who has confided to friends and colleagues his interest in becoming county mayor.

Asked about his current intentions after Monday's commission meeting, Hart at first attempted dismissive rhetoric. "Would somebody who had just taken the lead in doubling the wheel tax and who was the seventh vote for a 33-cent property tax increase and the ninth vote for a 43-cent increase be seriously thinking of running for mayor?" He then went into the "I-have-no-plans ... " mode of potential candidates who have not yet finalized their "plans" but are in dead earnest.

Acknowledging as much, Hart said at length that he had yet to decide but that, indeed, he thought he had something to contribute and might end up making the race. His interest -- along with Loeffel's and that of Wellford, who will not run for reelection next year and is still considering a mayoral run -- makes a remarkable statement, considering that the commission has just made one of the most controversial decisions on a pocketbook issue in local political history.

Maybe it's arguable that, as Hart and Democratic mayoral candidate Jim Kyle (who as a state senator was in the middle of several legislative controversies) maintain, someone willing to take a stand and demonstrate leadership will gain rather than lose from it. We may yet get to test that thesis. ™

You can e-mail Jackson Baker at baker@memphisflyer.com.

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