As previously forecast, two former critics of a proposed half-cent increase in the county sales-tax hike came forth in support of it on Monday, but another prominent naysayser, from county government itself, remains unmoved in his opposition.
The two converts were Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and City Councilman Shea Flinn, both of whom had originally been opposed to the proposal from Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz, now the Commission chairman. Their opposition had been based, essentially, on the fact that Ritz’s proposal, adopted by the Commission and later defended against an attempted veto by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, would supersede and displace from the November 6 ballot a similar initiative for city residents only.
But, after weeks of discussions with Ritz and others, notably Commissioner Steve Mulroy, Wharton and Flinn have become foursquare in their espousal of the county tax proposal, and no hint of reservation showed in their remarks at a morning press conference called to support the tax hike, held in the county auditorium.
Wharton hailed the tax increase as a means of extending childhood education and pre-K programs throughout Shelby County and of providing “some additional breathing room for some of the additional challenges we face.” Flinn, the Council’s immediate past budget chairman and the sponsor of the now displaced half-cent tax proposal by the city, would sound similar notes and warned of the alternatives. “If you vote no to the sales tax, a property tax will be coming soon thereafter and we will miss out on opportunity for pre-K and city improvements,” he said.
But Luttrell, who attended the press conference but did not speak at it, told reporters afterward there were “huge gaps in the general operation of our schools,” notably in security provisions, adding up to “about a $6 million hole in the budget” that he said should be plugged “before we talk about expanding.” The county mayor criticized the tax proposal for what he said was a lack of “specificity,” and, when asked if he would vote for it, said, “At this point, no.”
As if anticipating Luttrell’s objections, Ritz had already tried to debunk charges that the proposed tax would be “premature.” Such allegations “couldn’t be more untrue,” he said, citing the need for “a strategy to have the resources to do what we need to do.” And Ritz had spelled out what he said the financial consequences of a no vote would be. If the county, which will shortly be the only body responsible for funding public education, were to pick up the burden of a $57 million maintenance-of-effort default by the city, the result would be “a 44-cent increase in the property tax.”
Wharton, in speaking to the same point, the imminent phasing-out of the city’s financial obligations after completion of the pending merger of city and county schools, had said, “While the City of Memphis will no longer have a legal responsibility to contribute anything to education, it still has moral responsibility, particularly when it comes to early education and the pre-K years.” He would say, in a Q-and-A session that concluded the press conference, that it was the commitment to pre-K that “sold me” on the county plan.
Others attending the press conference in support of the county tax proposal were Patrice Robinson of the Unified School Board (who called the occasion “a great day”); Chris Caldwell of the School Board; Mulroy, Sidney Chism, Melvin Burgess Jr., and Walter Bailey of the County Commission; and Myron Lowery and Harold Collins of the City Council.