The proposed county government budget unveiled on Monday by Mayor A C Wharton is a document that raises more questions than it answers -- no doubt intentionally so. Unlike his counterpart, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, Shelby County's chief executive often uses the devices of indirection and conciliation to make his points.
Ergo, the hard realities of Wharton's budget presentation were presented in an optimistic package. A property-tax increase would probably not be necessary, said the mayor. His budget, as projected, foresees a deficit of some $7.6 million -- a shortfall that can be made up, Wharton suggested, by some combination of spending cuts and new revenue. The former prospect is somewhat disingenuously included, in that all departments of county government have been squeezed relentlessly the past two years. Indeed, Sheriff Mark Luttrell, who made a series of well-publicized cuts in his budget upon his accession to office in 2003, is requesting additional money, some $5 million worth, to fill some of the very jobs he had previously eliminated.
Moreover, both the city and county schools systems have made it abundantly clear, each of the last two years, that their very viability is threatened by the mere prospect of having to hold on without additional funding.
And there's the elephant in the room -- a burgeoning $1.7 billion debt. With each passing year, the cost of servicing it goes up, and the present curve is astronomical.
All of which leaves on the table, more or less by itself, the matter of new revenues -- in particular, the real estate transfer tax which Wharton has proposed and which the county commission, by unanimous vote across party lines, has endorsed. Wharton's unspoken message to the state legislators who now control its destiny: Pass it or else -- the else being another inevitable reach into the pockets of homeowners.