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.
The Memphis Flyer and its sister publication, Memphis magazine, were winners at the 2003 Green Eyeshade Awards, held April 5th in Atlanta. Hosted by the Atlanta chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, this competition honors the best work of writers and photographers in 11 Southern states.
This year's winners included:
Marilyn Sadler: first place, feature writing, "Meeting Halfway," Memphis magazine.
Vance Lauderdale: first place, humorous commentary, "Ask Vance," Memphis magazine.
Vern Evans: first place, photography, "Return to Shiloh," Memphis magazine.
Jackson Baker: third place, non-deadline reporting, "Meltdown in Nashville," The Memphis Flyer.
Chris Herrington: third place, sports commentary, "The Second Time Around," "Split Personality," and "Silver Lining," The Memphis Flyer.
Other local finalists included The Commercial Appeal's Geoff Calkins, second place for sports commentary; and David Williams, third place for sports reporting.
A propos that old adage about politics being a sausage factory: The Shelby County Democrats' biennial convention last Saturday at Hamilton High School may have been a messy and shocking spectacle, but it was at times spicy and even delectable. And lots of fun. The only problem was that the process ended with no sausage.
Which is to say, no chairperson. Current chair Gale Jones Carson and her challenger, state Representative Kathryn Bowers, both ended up with 20 votes apiece -- thanks to a sudden illness that forced a presumed Bowers delegate, Marianne Wolf of Cordova, to go home early. When various remedies for the standoff -- including a proposed revote and an attempt to invoke a tie-break via Roberts' Rules of Order -- failed to come off, both contestants (and their backers) finally agreed to an adjournment and a runoff vote at a special meeting of the newly elected executive committee to be called later on.
Some of the contests that produced the 41 elected committee members in conclaves (based on state House of Representatives districts) held throughout the Hamilton auditorium were close in their own right --and self-sufficiently dramatic. For example, in District 85, one of several to experience a tie vote requiring several ballotings, a shoving match erupted at one point involving radio talk-show host Thaddeus Matthews, a Bowers supporter, and Carson supporter Jerry Hall. In the end, the majority vote went for Carson.
There were accusations and controversies aplenty in other district conclaves. A Carson supporter in District 87 (Bowers' home district) was city council member TaJuan Stout-Mitchell, whose credentials were challenged by Bowers booster James Robinson on grounds that Mitchell had not participated in last month's preliminary pre-convention caucuses. Mitchell denied the allegation.
As Carson wanly noted toward the end of the proceedings, the old Arab proverb that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" was very much in play. There were all manner of unnatural alliances and combinations to be seen -- starting with the fact that longtime antagonists David Upton and Del Gill, both Bowers advocates on Saturday, were on the same side. And, though most known partisans of 9th District U.S. Representative Harold Ford Jr. were deployed on Bowers' behalf, at least one, field rep Clay Perry, was on hand to give apparent lip service to Ford's public statement on behalf of Carson.
That statement, made last month as some of Ford's cadres apparently invoked his name on Bowers' behalf, seemed clearly pro forma and the result of what some of his supporters saw as a panic reaction. A Bowers backer on Saturday remarked bitterly that the congressman had "left us high and dry" after earlier promises of support.
Late in the game, Carson supporters were insisting that Roberts' Rules mandated a tie-breaking vote by the chairperson or -- since Carson, in the apparent interests of propriety, declined to do those honors herself -- the first vice chair, who happened to be one of her supporters, freelance journalist Bill Larsha. The crucial argument was supplied by lawyer David Cocke, a Bowers proponent, who somehow prevailed on a hastily assembled jury of fellow barristers to accept his interpretation that parliamentary rules exempted election of a chairperson from that sort of tie-break.
Cocke, a newly elected committee member and voter himself, was under clock pressure to get something done fast, inasmuch as he was due to attend the funeral of his mother-in-law Saturday afternoon. "We kept them from knowing that," gloated Upton, who with another Bowers ringleader, John Freeman, had been involved in another time-sensitive mission, pleading on the telephone to the ailing Wolff for her return.
Wolff, who was suffering from nausea (presumably for reasons other than the raucous events at the convention), had been carried home early by her Cordova neighbor, Nancy Kuhn, a Carson supporter whom Wolff had beat out for a District 99 committee slot. To compound the irony, it was Kuhn who dutifully drove Wolff back to the auditorium after Wolff finally said yes to her insistent implorers. By then, the convention had adjourned, however.
"That was insensitive," Carson said scornfully about the prolonged effort to persuade an ailing delegate to return.
Insensitive or not, the Wolff mission was as nothing compared to the arm-twisting and cajoling and threatening and subtle -- and not-so-subtle -- bribery that will go on (as all of it had during the run-up to Saturday's convention) in the days remaining before the newly constituted committee is reconvened to break the tie.
Whatever the final result, the course of civilization at large will not be much altered. Clearly, a Bowers victory would gratify those Democrats critical of Carson or of Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, whom she serves as press secretary, or of Carson/Herenton ally Sidney Chism, blamed by Bowers and other legislators for recruiting election opponents for them last year. (Herenton, who showed the flag on Carson's behalf at last month's caucuses, was not on hand Saturday, though many members of his inner circle, including city finance director Joseph Lee, were.) White Democrats on the new committee seem mostly to be Bowers backers, testament to one of the convention's subtexts, invoked subtly by Bowers in earlier remarks from the stage calling for more "inclusion."
Just as clearly, many Democrats faithful to Carson's cause (and the mayor's) were among those who have traditionally been alienated from what they have seen as the party's establishment -- an ill-defined aggregate including partisans of the party's Farris and Ford clans and, these days, members of the county's legislative delegation.
In any case, the Democrats will take one more crack at creating a sausage when they meet again, though it is doubtful that the next attempt will have quite the sizzle and spectacle of Saturday's convention.
John Willingham, the suburban Republican who has somewhat unexpectedly become the swing vote on several issues that confront a tenuously balanced Shelby County Commission, was standing near the doorway of the county building's auditorium after Monday's commission meeting when one of his colleagues, Deidre Malone, passed by on her way out.
"Don't be mad at me, Deidre," said Willingham, referring to a vote he had just cast -- the deciding one -- to authorize the issuing of $38 million of rural school bonds for the financing of some overdue county school construction. Malone, an inner-city Democrat, had been on the short end of the 7-6 vote and, like most of her party colleagues (Joe Ford being the exception), saw in the vote for rural school bonds a precedent that could undermine the current funding formula favoring city schools.
"Just be careful with that casino proposal of yours," said Malone with faintly arched eyebrows.
"That's a threat," Willingham observed glumly after Malone had passed through the swinging doors into the lobby area. And well it might have been.
Malone and her Democratic contingent were not the only ones who were sweating out a borderline vote. So is Willingham, whose proposal to convert The Pyramid into a downtown casino/hotel was turned down two weeks ago by another 7-6 vote but is still hanging fire, thanks to efforts to revive it by one of the original nay voters on the proposal, Commissioner Tom Moss.
Moss, like most of the commission's Republicans, has been a supporter of the proposal, brought formally by David Lillard, to fund a new school in the Arlington area and provide improvements at other county school sites by departing from the traditional state Average Daily Attendance (ADA) formula for allocation of school construction funds. That formula has mandated a 3:1 spending ratio, whereby for every dollar spent on capital construction by the county school system, three dollars must be paid into the city system.
In the last several years, and in the 2002 election campaign in particular, the ADA formula came in for severe criticism by county officials and political figures, who see it as unfairly burdensome and restrictive in an age of revenue shortages and fiscal belt-tightening. Representatives of the inner city, conversely, either defend the formula as necessary to upgrade deteriorating city schools or want to bargain over changes in the formula so as to safeguard the interests of the city school system.
Meanwhile, of course, both Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and Shelby County mayor A C Wharton have offered competing plans to reform the way the county's two school districts interact and are funded -- Herenton coming out boldly for consolidation and condemning the city school board, while Wharton has made a series of compromise proposals that most recently have included his acceptance of the funding plan voted by the commission Monday as a first step toward reform.
That plan, a compromise, would allocate $11 million of the $49 million total sought by the county system from a long term reserve held jointly by the two systems to fund construction resulting from annexations and other future developments. The remaining $38 million would be raised by the issuance of rural school bonds, requiring a probable 6 cent increase in the county property-tax rate.
Deferred for several weeks, the school-bond issue narrowly squeaked through Monday thanks to the vote cast by Willingham, who had previously been counted as undecided and leaning to the other side of the issue. But Willingham -- a city resident whose fiscal conservatism coexists with a maverick antiestablishment streak -- has developed into a member whose attitudes and votes have often proved unpredictable and pivotal.
Best known locally as a barbecue maven, Willingham also has a history in both government -- he served the Nixon administration as an administrator in the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) -- and construction. Indeed, he is even now hatching a comprehensive proposal that would in essence put Shelby County Corrections Center inmates to work doing precast molds that would be used not only in the renovation of The Pyramid but in construction of schools and railway projects.
Typically, the project appears grandiose and complicated to the point of appearing Byzantine at first glance. Typically, it would put Willingham in conflict with members of the local business/government establishment -- in this case, with members of its construction and contracting end. And, typically, it is an instance of Willingham's capacity for thinking out of the box.
Willingham is alone among Republican members of the commission in his openness to school consolidation proposals, and his casino project, which was originally greeted with open skepticism, has been gathering momentum, failing to gain acceptance last month by a vote of -- what else? -- 7-6. Willingham was the solitary GOP proponent for his measure, along with five Democrats. (One Democrat, commission chairman Walter Bailey, went the other way.)
The casino proposal's failure may, however, prove to have been short-lived. Almost immediately, commission members partial to the rural school-bonds proposal began lobbying Willingham, who had opposed the bond issue, to open his mind. At its last prior commission vote in March, Willingham joined with Marilyn Loeffel, another opponent, to defer a final vote on the bonds until Monday. On that occasion, social conservative Loeffel made it clear that she would ultimately be voting no (as, indeed, she did on Monday) but was willing to accommodate others, expecting, as she said pointedly, "the same courtesy in return."
For a gambling opponent, Loeffel is one of the most dedicated poker players on the commission, frequently playing her hand for tradeoffs with other members. Willingham, who otherwise doesn't get on too well with Loeffel, seems to have learned something from her on that score. In any case, in several discussions with other GOP members in which the concept of quid pro quo was never mentioned outright or even suggested, he did agree to open his mind.
So did others -- notably Moss, after some rewriting of the Willingham proposal in order to further buffer the county against financial liability. What the proposal now provides is official commission sanction for the efforts of Lakes Development, Inc., a Minnesota-based company experienced in prior casino projects, to pursue two prospects: 1) that of consigning a narrow riverfront property including The Pyramid to Native Americans for casino-development purposes; or 2) looking for loopholes in state law that arguably allow for casino gambling. The latter prospect would involve negotiations at some points with such formidable -- and perhaps proprietary -- legislative personalities as state Senator Steve Cohen, currently embroiled in efforts to fashion a state lottery.
In any case, the current proposal, carefully vetted with county attorney Donnie Wilson, contains no financial liabilities until and unless the county should license a casino operation, in which case Lakes would have first dibs on the project or would be paid a sizable forfeit. The county is meanwhile free to pursue a variety of other uses for The Pyramid if, as is widely anticipated, the University of Memphis decides to relocate its basketball games to the soon-to-be venue of the FedExForum.
In that form, the proposal proved amenable to Moss and others, and expectations were that Moss, as a voter on the prevailing (nay) side two weeks earlier, would ask for a reconsideration of the casino proposal on Monday -- the same day, coincidentally or not, that rural school bonds would be coming up for a do-or-die vote. Both proposals looked like borderline winners -- provided that all prior proponents of either stayed put.
Whether that carefully secured balance came undone or whether further negotiations were under way or whether Moss merely wanted to be sure of his legislative underpinnings, on the very eve of Monday's meeting he decided against asking for reconsideration of last month's casino vote. "The proposal is not the same one that we originally voted on," Moss explained Monday, arguing that the commission would need to take up the rewritten casino proposal anew, in which case he would gladly co-sponsor it along with Willingham.
But that won't happen until the commission meets again in two weeks, and, until then, efforts to pursue converting The Pyramid into a casino/hotel complex remain an unknown quantity. And so, hypothetically, did the balance of votes on the commission.
That is the proximate context for Willingham's formal statement, upon casting his vote for rural school bonds Monday, that he reserved the right to ask for reconsideration at the next meeting. He indicated to reporters that he wanted to see the county school administration of Dr. Bobby Webb further pare projected construction costs for the Arlington facility or that he wanted "answers" to a variety of other (largely unspecified) questions, but, whether he meant it so or not, his threat could be construed as a hedge to keep his newly gained casino-proposal alliance in line.
But, as Malone's parting shot Monday would indicate, Willingham isn't the only commission member who can imply -- or carry out -- threats. So clouds remain over both the rural school-bonds issue and John Willingham's pet Pyramid scheme -- clouds that won't be dispelled until April 21st, if then.
· Two other long-pending matters got dealt with Monday. First, a proposal to extend the unpaid vacation benefits for former chief commission administrator Calvin Williams died in committee as potential votes for it, never numerous, dwindled to the vanishing point. Secondly, the commission voted to name acting administrator Grace Hutchinson the successor to Williams, who was forced out in January amid a barrage of conflict-of-interest allegations.
The contest came down finally to Hutchinson and former Memphis police director Winslow "Buddy" Chapman, but there had been other interesting developments before it got to that. One major contender, Chamber of Commerce administrator Jesse Johnson, failed to supply a requested verification concerning his resume and was thereby disqualified. Another, Memphis City Council administrator Lisa Geater, abruptly withdrew, and yet another, veteran political figure Joe Cooper, turned out to have been eliminated in a semifinal round by a miscount. He was paired with Chapman in a runoff vote Monday, though, and was eliminated again.
Ultimately, Hutchinson was always expected to be the commission's choice -- with Geater at one point, before votes began mysteriously shifting away from her, considered a close runner-up.
· During a committee meeting Monday, Commissioner Bruce Thompson at one point noted that his colleague and close friend David Lillard had voted against the tide on a matter and jokingly called him, to general laughter, "Councilman Vergos." All things considered, that was a compliment. City councilman John Vergos has, in his two terms of representing Midtown Memphis, made a name for himself as one who stands for his beliefs and what he perceives as the views of his constituency against all odds and all comers.
A tireless advocate of the environment and of educational reform, Vergos announced this week he would not seek a third term. Prospects for succeeding him, so far, include lawyer Jim Strickland, activist David Upton, and radiologist/radio magnate George Flinn.
· Another political showdown will take place Saturday at Hamilton High School when Shelby County Democrats will either reelect current party chairman Gale Jones Carson, who doubles as Mayor Herenton's press secretary, or elect in her stead state Rep. Kathryn Bowers, who has support from a number of other local elected officials. The vote is expected to be close. ·