It was a precedent-shattering day for the Shelby County Commission Monday. The assembled commissioners were addressed by two mayors -- county mayor A C Wharton in the morning, pitching his proposed new Adequate Facilities Tax, and Memphis mayor Willie Herenton in the afternoon, stumping for city/county consolidation. But the key moment may have come at the very end of the commissioners' long day, when, just before adjournment, Commissioner Joe Ford announced, almost as a throwaway line, "I'm going to vote for development every time it comes by here," and proceeded to make the case that adding property to the tax rolls was the summum bonum for county government, transcending considerations of "Smart Growth," urban sprawl, school funding, or whatever.
Ford's declaration followed a close and controversial vote on an east Shelby County subdivision project proposed by developer Rusty Hyneman, which in itself was an appropriate capper for a day's worth of high-urgency policy debate -- much of which centered, explicitly or implicitly, on that selfsame issue of development. The morning's activity focused on Wharton's presentation of the case for an Adequate Facilities Tax as a lynchpin of his Smart Growth plan, technically delivered to the commission's budget and finance committee but made before a de facto meeting of the whole commission, reconvened for the purpose in the first-floor auditorium in the county administration building. The afternoon saw "Willie W. Herenton, citizen" (as the city mayor insisted on calling himself) make what -- considering the advance buildup -- was actually an anticlimactic and understated plea for consolidation.
The intertwined issues of development and school funding as they impact the county's worsening financial predicament underlay both presentations and the discussions that ensued from them.
The Adequate Facilities Tax that Wharton proposes -- and which he had first introduced to the commission in a preliminary budget projection last week -- would impose fees of $1 per square foot for new residential development and 75 cents per square foot for new nonresidential projects. Citing the fact that "our property taxes are among the highest in the region," resulting in a "tremendous loss" of population and industrial clients to DeSoto County, Wharton said he intended the A.F.T. -- which is close cousin to an "impact fee" on new development -- to "take pressure off the property tax." But he added, "I'm looking for workable solutions," offhandedly throwing out a number of other possibilities, including that of a payroll tax.
Commissioner Deidre Malone grabbed that ball and ran with it, pointing out that a payroll tax would be an appropriate means of getting help on infrastructure costs from out-migrants who live elsewhere but still work in Shelby County or rely on the county's shopping, recreational, and entertainment facilities. And, though commission chairman Walter Bailey dutifully pointed out that the scope of Monday morning's discussion was limited to the proposed new tax or to the county mayor's Smart Growth concept or his budgetary proposals in general, the payroll-tax idea kept resurfacing. Commissioner Joyce Avery, who represents an outer-county district, added her approval of it, twice calling the payroll tax -- either in a Freudian slip or as an imaginative analogy -- a "poll tax."
And a sizable host of developers and their spokesmen on hand were like-minded. A series of speakers, beginning with former Office of Planning and Development director Dexter Muller, who now represents commercial developers, and continuing with several officers of the state and local Home Builders Associations, deplored the effect of the proposed new tax on what they described as an already depressed homebuilding industry and talked up the alternative of a payroll tax. Homebuilder Frank Uhlhorn, a Germantown alderman, was typical in suggesting that the right tactic was not to penalize local developers but to target those who "have chosen to cut and run." Ron Belz, president of Belz Enterprises, said county entrepreneurs trying to attract warehousing and other commercial clients could "lose deals over pennies" and that the proposed A.F.T. could tilt the balance, however minutely, in such negotiations.
Commissioner Tom Moss, himself a developer, was skeptical of the limited yield -- $4 to $7 million annually, Wharton has estimated -- from an Adequate Facilities Tax and quipped sarcastically that "we could go for some real money" by applying the proposed tax retroactively to developments already completed. That, Wharton aide Kelly Rayne said straight-facedly, would be unconstitutional.
The lone testifier on behalf of the tax was Cordova homemaker Stacy Heydrich, who said that the morning session seemed "skewed" on behalf of homebuilders and developers and lamented the fact of pell-mell development in her area. Mentioning specifically the Hyneman project on Macon Road that would be voted on later in the afternoon, Heydrich cited the difficulty of funding new schools and other infrastructure that she said would arise from that and other new development and proclaimed, "If you don't have the money, you have two choices: Don't build, or tax builders and developers."
What Wharton was asking the commission to do was not to enact his proposed new tax but merely to pass it on to the legislature, where, if the Shelby County delegation supports it with what amounts to unanimity, enabling legislation could be passed, and the tax could be forwarded back to the commission for definitive action. With that in mind, such undecided commissioners as Marilyn Loeffel and Avery voted with a 6-to-4 majority to pass the proposed measure on for action in Nashville, where, as Wharton pointed out, the General Assembly is heading toward an early-May adjournment.
Though his afternoon appearance had been much ballyhooed, Herenton added little to the consolidation agenda which he had previously proposed, though his declaration before the assembled commissioners -- and in the presence of Wharton, his mayoral counterpart -- that "we cannot continue to support two separate governments and two separate school systems" had inherent symbolic power. Like Wharton, Herenton pronounced that local taxpayers could not continue to be burdened with add-on property taxes. Underscoring the implicit comparison between his own no-new-taxes budget and the county's revenue difficulties, certain to require additional taxes of some sort, the Memphis mayor-qua-Shelby County "citizen" said, "As a taxpayer, I expect better policies and better management."
One result of that was a somewhat testy back-and-forth between Herenton and commission budget chairman Cleo Kirk, who at one point asked Herenton what the city's bond rating was. "Double-A," the city mayor said proudly. "Well, ours is Double-A-plus," responded Kirk. "We can't have been doing things all that badly."
At some point, the idea of a "summit" to discuss the issues of schools and local governance got bruited, and Herenton said, "I am hoping that Chairman [Walter] Bailey, in his great wisdom, would call the summit." To which Bailey replied, "I trust your hopes will be realized." As they were ultimately, with the commission voting 11-1 to hold such a meeting of local officials -- time, place, agenda and other particulars yet to be defined.
"I'm just going to continue to try to be the best congressman I can," said Republican Blackburn about the potential 2004 challenge which Kustoff acknowledges he is considering. News of Kustoff's intentions -- first reported in these spaces last month -- reached her almost instantly. "I wasn't surprised," she said -- something of an understatement since she and her staff people had been on orange alert for news of a Kustoff bid for several months.
The premise of a Kustoff run is that Shelby County is -- and will remain -- the largest voter base in the sprawling 7th, which runs from Memphis to Nashville, and that, had not Kustoff been saddled with two major local opponents -- Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor and state Senator Mark Norris -- in the GOP's 2002 primary, he might have had good one-on-one chances against Blackburn.
"I've had a lot of encouragement to run," Kustoff has said, and likely he has -- though it is still hard to estimate his chances against an incumbent who has worked Shelby County as often and as hard as Blackburn has (last year she finished a strong third in the county, to Kustoff and Norris) and who hit the ground running in Washington, where she serves as an assistant Republican whip and won another plum as vice chairman of the Government Operations subcommittee on government efficiency.
The latter post gives Blackburn a chance to work out on her pet scenario of government as Big Bumbler. And she hasn't laid aside the tax issue that boosted her fame (or notoriety) in Tennessee -- where as a state senator she became one of the focal points of opposition to a state income tax.
Just now she is pushing legislation to allow taxpayers in Tennessee -- along with those in other states that have a sales tax but no income tax -- to deduct their sales tax expenditures on their federal income-tax filings. Whipping out her Blackberry, on which she has her research information recorded, she ran through a chronology which began, as she outlined it, in 1913 with the imposition of a U.S. income tax and continued through 1986 when state sales-taxes became the last of of a variety of local and state taxes which had progressively been eliminated as a basis for deductions.
"It was social engineering pure and simple," Blackburn maintained in all seriousness, "a way of forcing the states to shift from sales taxes to income taxes. I promised [state Lt. Gov.] John Wilder I would try to restore the sales-tax deduction when I got to Congress."
Did that mean she makes floor speeches using the vintage Wilder line "Uncle Sam taxes taxes"? Blackburn laughed. "No, and I haven't said, 'The cosmos is good,' along with everything else." That, of course, is an allusion to Wilder's liberal use of the adjective "good" to describe virtually everything (notably and primarily, the state Senate itself).
And Blackburn is the last person you would accuse of being liberal about anything -- except maybe in her consumption of the breakfast bars and nutrition supplements she says she substitutes for most regular meals.
In particular: "I can't use sugar. It gives me headaches." If last year's election season was any indication, Blackburn knows how to exude sweetness on the campaign trail (she was one of the few contestants who eschewed mudslinging as such), but she clearly knows how to give headaches to the opposition too -- even someone as shrewd as Kustoff, who ably directed George W. Bush's crucial electoral win in Tennessee but has since seen Blackburn cop her own share of Republican mainstream action.
If the race comes off, it's one to look forward to in 2004.