What threatened to be a summer-long barnburner of a budget battle came to a proximate and unexpected end Wednesday with the tell-tale vote of Republican Tom Moss in budget committee for a Democrat-sponsored tax increase.
That made the final tally 6-6, a clear indicator of the expected 7-6 favorable vote when absent Democrat Julian Bolton is added on at Mondays meeting of the full commission. Though some haggling no doubt remained to be done that will shift the final figures around marginally, the proposed property-tax increase amounted to 32 cents for city residents and 37 cents for non-Memphis residents of Shelby County. As disgruntled Republican commissioner Bruce Thompson noted, the larger number was just barely within the ten-percent ceiling beyond which a two-thirds vote of the commission would be necessary.
They just knew what figure they wanted to end up with. They had no idea what specifically they were voting for to get there, observed Thompson of the ex tempore mathematics engaged in by the panels Democrats, notably Joe Ford and Walter Bailey, as they broke elements of the increase down into proportionate shares for the budgets general fund, for school operations, for debt service, and for rural school bonds. The latter, a controversial 5-cent component assessed only on residents of the county outside Memphis city limits may have proved a crucial incentive for Moss.
I wanted my schools, Moss would say later as one of the reasons why he broke ranks with his fellow Republicans. Money raised by the bonds would finance a new high school in Arlington and improvements at various other county schools, all in the outer Shelby bailiwick which Moss shares with commissioners Joyce Avery and David Lillard.
Neither Lillard, who had led the months-long fight for rural school bonds as an alternative to a traditional joint funding formula favoring city schools, and Avery, who also supported the bonds proposal, were tempted to vote for the tax-increase motion, which was proposed Wednesday by Bailey after relatively perfunctory discussion.
Clearly, some prolonged behind-the-scenes negotiations had resulted in the agreement, however. County finance director Jim Huntzicker, who unveiled the basic compromise plan to the budget committee Wednesday, had privately made it clear beforehand that he expected an agreement.
Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton professed satisfaction afterward with the agreement, which hewed very closely to lines suggested last week by budget committee chairman Cleo Kirk, a Democrat. Basically, Kirk had outlined a formula involving budget cuts in the ten-percent range, a tax increase in the 30-cent range, and reluctant acceptance of the rural-school-bond proposal by the panels Democrats.
The plan presented by Huntzicker Wednesday conformed to that general pattern, and minor modifications by Democrats on the budget committee brought it to the form eventually voted on. Under the provisional budget agreement, the current county propety-tax rate of $3.79 for each $100 of assessed value would rise to $4.11 for Memphis residents and $4.16 for Shelby Countians elsewhere. As Commissioner Ford noted while juggling the math in his head during Wednesday's meetings, that would amount to an additional $8 a month for the owner of a $100,000 house.
Moss acknowledged after the vote that several of his fellow Republicans on the commission were likely to be displeased with his breaking ranks to insure the success of the tax-increase package, but he said, Theres too much partisanship on this commission. We have a social obligation to make county government work.
Left on the table Wednesday was the prospect of pay raises for county employees, but Commissioner Michael Hooks indicated some shifting of proposed fund distributions might occur before Monday that would allocate at least a 2-cent component for that purpose.
Moss said he would support that concept, too. "It's the least we can do," he said, arguing that income losses to employees resulting from changes in the county's benefit package during the last year could be offset by modest pay increases.