County Tax-Rate Battle Ends 

Luttrell is the winner, as dramatic conversions finally resolve the on-again, off-again issue.

Ford affirms his support for Luttrell's tax rate as Basar listens.

JB

Ford affirms his support for Luttrell's tax rate as Basar listens.

So finally it's over! Shelby County commissioner Sidney Chism, who had been abstaining on all prior votes on the county's 2013-14 tax rate, out of consideration for a possible conflict-of-interest situation, made the dramatic announcement at the beginning of Monday's meeting that he would be voting on a repeat third reading of the once-rejected tax rate and explained why.

Previously, said Chism, he had been legally advised that, as proprietor of a South Memphis day-care center which received some of its funding from Shelby County government, it might be a conflict of interest for him to vote on a budget that authorized such funding. The center, which the commissioner said was under the control of family members, not himself, was in any case no longer receiving such funding, and Chism continued, "I've been advised that with full disclosure I will be able to vote."

On another contentious issue, Chism acknowledged that he would be a board member of a charter school which his granddaughter has applied to operate but that such a circumstance would not arise until he had left the commission, even if her application got approval. So he regarded himself as unhampered on that count as well.

The bottom line was that Chism would be recorded in favor, and this fact, along with another major conversion, that of Commissioner Justin Ford, would make the final tally 7-5-1 in favor of Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell's $4.38 tax rate ($4.42 for non-Memphis residents, due to a 2004 rural school bond obligation), with the lone absentee being Commissioner Heidi Shafer, a tax-rate opponent.

Ford's conversion was actually a return to form. The commissioner had voted aye on the first two readings of the Luttrell tax rate, but he switched to no, along with new chairman-elect James Harvey two weeks ago. On Monday, Ford said he had spoken with members of the administration about their considering the idea of money for summer jobs programs and was satisfied that they were open to discussion.

The absence of Shafer from Monday's meeting, along with the (relatively) perfunctory resistance put up by tax-rate opponents, was an indication that commissioners of all persuasions saw the handwriting on the wall and that there would be no more stalemates on the tax-rate question like those which have stalled implementation of the budget in recent weeks.

Various grants and new hires that were put on deep freeze until a tax rate could be approved are now free to be implemented. That includes programs for the homeless that had received vocal support from audience members at the last several meetings.

So foregone was the conclusion as the relatively brief meeting got under way that the only tension was an angry exchange between Commissioner Terry Roland and Chairman Mike Ritz over a verbal attack by Roland on Commissioner Walter Bailey, a tax-rate supporter.

Ritz gaveled Roland down as "out of order" for making "personal" remarks, and Roland responded, "You're out of order!" Reminded by Ritz that he had the duty to maintain order as chairman, Roland retorted, "Well, you won't be much longer."

At the commission's last meeting, Commissioner James Harvey became chairman-elect, helped along by votes from tax-rate opponents. Harvey continued in that mode on Monday, voting no to the $4.38 tax rate, the only Democrat to do so, along with Republicans Roland, Wyatt Bunker, Chris Thomas, and Steve Basar.

Before the votes were taken, Basar made an extended and somewhat impassioned statement about the roughly $57 million still owed by Memphis city government to the county's new unified school system as successor to Memphis City Schools. The debt, found to be legally binding by the courts as a "maintenance of effort" obligation, dates from a fateful decision in 2008 by the Memphis City Council, budget-beleaguered then as now, to cut its annual allotment to Memphis City Schools by that amount.

Had the debt been paid, Basar said, "we wouldn't be talking about raising taxes here. We wouldn't be trying to fill the gap."

Until recently, Basar had been a potential seventh vote, if needed, for the $4.38 tax rate. But in the course of the stalemate that developed on the commission during the last few weeks, he had resolved to stand fast in favor of a $4.32 rate, which is identical to the state-established certified tax rate, an arbitrary figure representing the rate at which the county could count on revenue at the same level as the previous year.

The $4.32 rate had figured large in an extended session of the commission's budget and finance committee last week (a de facto commission meeting per se, since 12 of the 13 commissioners were in attendance and voting, all but Steve Mulroy, who was out of town).

Previous to that meeting, a consensus in favor of the $4.32 rate seemed to have been building as a compromise between Luttrell's request and a resistance to any tax-rate increase at all on the part of the commission's hard-line conservatives.

Normally, Roland is a member of that latter coalition (though, as some of its members have made clear privately, they are not always comfortable with his often abrasive and confrontational approach). But last Wednesday, to the surprise of most, the Millington commissioner offered a version of the $4.32 tax rate as his own, putting it forth as an "olive branch" gesture of solidarity.

But in the course of extended debate that day (far more strenuous than anything that happened on Monday), Roland could find few takers. Even Shafer, who had seconded his motion for $4.32, did not end up voting with him, being out of the room when the issue was called. Only Roland and Basar voted aye, a result that owed a great deal, as commissioners on both sides of the issue would confide later, to their view of the messenger as much as to their attitude toward the message.

But more than personality issues were involved. Luttrell and two chief aides, CAO Harvey Kennedy and county finance officer Mike Swift, made the point that no less than $9.6 million would have to be pared from the county's $1.2 billion budget, already passed and, to some extent, already being acted upon.

Since nobody wanted the schools, already acknowledged by most observers to be operating at a bare-bones level, to suffer, all of that $9.6 million would have to come from the county's general fund, and that would mean layoffs and program cuts. In the end, that prospect proved too much to deal with for commissioners, like Ford, who were on the fence.

• It is to be hoped that 9th District congressman Steve Cohen enjoyed the weather in Washington last week. There was not much else for him to take comfort from.

First, for those few who might have missed what became a national story and viral on a large scale, CNN announced the results of a DNA test it had administered to Cohen, Victoria Brink, the Houston model whom he introduced to the world back in February as his daughter, and John Brink, the Houston oil man who had raised her as his own daughter.

The results were as astonishing as the Memphis Democrat's original announcement of proud paternity — but, for obvious reasons, devastating.

The tests showed that Brink was the actual father and not Cohen, who had been involved with Victoria Brink's mother at a time consistent with his possible fatherhood and had apparently been informed, almost four years ago, that he was indeed the father.

A "stunned and dismayed" Cohen said, "I still love Victoria, hold dear the time I have shared with her, and hope to continue to be a part of her life."

But that was not the end. In what he probably saw as no more than a gallant evasion, Cohen told a reporter seeking further reaction that, while she was "very attractive," he had resolved to say no more about the issue. That got him some more hits from media types, who must have scented blood, and he got even more after a tweet in which he quoted an African-American tow-truck driver (yes, Cohen's vintage Cadillac chose this week to quit on him) as saying, sympathetically, in a clearly ich-bin-ein-Berliner way, "You're black!"

The piling on was especially curious in that, with an Obama news conference, major bills, and foreign discords to deal with, it wasn't a slow news week in D.C.

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