Wednesday’s meeting of the Shelby County Commission’s budget committee began with a prayer (commissioned by budget chair Heidi Shafer and delivered by member Willie Brooks), continued as a lengthy wrangle likened by one member to a poker game, and ended with a provisional conclusion that nobody thinks will hold up on Monday, when the full Commission meets to vote for real on a budget and tax rate.
In the end, though members present had just voted overwhelmingly for budget increases that would likely mean a tax increase, it was generally agreed that County Mayor Mark Luttrell, who wants a stable property tax rate at the current level of $4.37, will have his way.
That means the probable end of an ongoing wish by several Republican members to have a one-cent tax decrease for fiscal 2015-16, though it kept alive an innovative proposal by Democratic member Reginald Milton to parcel out money to each of the Commission’s 13 members for “enhancement” opportunities in their districts.
What it almost surely does not mean is that an 8-2 vote on a motion by senior Democratic member Walter Bailey to grant generous increases to the Sheriff’s Department, the county’s Public Defender, and the Regional One Medical Center will hold up on Monday.
Bailey’s proposal — granting increases of $1.8 million to the sheriff, $1 million to the Public Defender, and $1.2 million to the Med — was generally seen, even by its mainly Democratic supporters, as a means of artificially raising the stakes so as to ensure an ultimate compromise budget at the stay-even level desired by the administration.
Earlier in the meeting, administration CAO Harvey Kennedy had proposed halving the increase requests of these and other divisions, returning budget discussions to a point close to what had seemed to be a consensus reached by all parties in a marathon special Commission session of May 20.
An important difference is that the Sheriff’s Department, which had not been allocated its half a loaf in that earlier meeting but was shut out of a budget increase, was now billeted for $900,000 — a change in status which some saw as the result of vote-trading and behind-the-scenes political maneuvering.
After Wednesday’s committee meeting, Luttrell was asked if he and Bailey were functioning as de facto allies, and his ghost of a smile seemed a sufficient answer. During Wednesday’s discussion on the budget, Luttrell had made the assertion — remarkable for a Republican official and wholly at odds with the professed assumptions of the Commission’s GOP members — that it was not the county tax rate but “liveability” issues that were driving residents out into suburban areas adjacent to Shelby County.
That remark was a follow-up of sorts to the Mayor’s stance at the marathon May 20 meeting, when he opposed a sentiment building up for a one-cent tax decrease. Luttrell had argued than that a potential $1 million-plus sum left over from division of a presumed $6 million “surplus” would better be used on behalf of county infrastructure and the need to counter blight.
Luttrell put that thesis forward again on Wednesday, adding that debt-service requirements and uncertainties regarding future school budgets were additional reasons to go slow on tax reduction.
The Mayor’s position regarding blight and infrastructure may have been a contributing factor to budget chair Shafer’s successful motion on Wednesday broadening Milton’s proposal for district-by-district allocation of grant funds by making provision for infrastructure-like purposes. A total of $1.3 million was provisionally approved for all purposes.
Debate on the grant-proposal issue had occurred early in Wednesday’s discussion, and it exposed modest disagreements within GOP ranks, with Commissioner Mark Billingsley of Germantown, the lone dissenter in an 8-1 approval vote, objecting that a one-cent tax reduction should come first and Terry Roland of Millington contending that both results were possible.
Roland indeed maintained again Wednesday, as he has in several recent meetings, that the Luttrell administration had additional financial reserves that it was not admitting to. Kennedy and county finance officer Mike Swift would recite figures to refute such a notion.
Roland’s response to the ultimately successful Bailey motion (which occurred almost anti-climactically, out of nowhere, at the very end of the meeting) was from the other end of his rhetorical stick, as he made a show of proffering thanks to the majority who approved it, saying it would enhance his status as a Tipton County landowner.
There were clashes of temper on Wednesday, as when Shafer asked CFO Swift how much of a potential deficit the Bailey proposal would create ($1.8 million, would be his answer), and she angrily cut Commissioner off Commissioner Steve Basar, with whom she has differed on several issues, when he attempted to supply the answer himself.
There were moments of comic relief, too, as when Roland at one point began a comment to Luttrell, “I love you to death…,” and before the Millington commissioner could supply the inevitable “but” clause, Luttrell responded, “Oh, I know you love me, Commissioner.”
The two appeared together briefly after the meeting, assuring each other — and the media — that there would be a meeting of the minds on Monday at the full Commission’s public session.
There had clearly been a good deal of horse-trading and bartering between principals, not all of it on public view Wednesday, and one of the apparent winners seemed to be Sheriff Bill Oldham, who not only stood to get a nice hunk of the money he’d requested but was spared on Wednesday the voiced suspicions and expressions of scorn from Roland and others that had been his lot in several recent meetings.
“The Sheriff can take us to arbitration,” had been one explanation offered by Democratic Commissioner Van Turner during the debate. That was on top of Luttrell’s insistence on showing “proper deference” to the sheriff as the county’s chief law enforcement officer.
Roland brushed aside his previously expressed concerns about Oldham’s employment of aide Sidney Chism and other matters. “I was willing to give a little….At the end of the day, this is not about me and Sidney. It’s about the taxpayers of Shelby County.”
Beyond that, said Roland, “What we’re likely to come back to was the thing proposed by Harvey Kennedy\. At the end of the day, I think we’ll come up with something that looks like what the Mayor’s proposal is. I will say that, for the record.”
And that apparent accord was in line with an almost anti-climactic vote, after the lengthy budget discussion, approving the current tax-rate of $4.37.
Monday, of course, could be another matter. There has been a fair amount of to-and-fro and overturning of applecarts during this budget season, and there could still be more.