The Shelby County Commission seems to have done the right thing for the right reasons with its override Monday of a mayoral veto. We say that in full knowledge that people in the suburbs and city government are sure to disagree.
The former are absolutely certain, as their spokespersons on the commission made clear, that they had been targeted by the resolution for a county sales tax increase, passed two weeks ago and reaffirmed in the override of county mayor Mark Luttrell's veto. The latter — especially Memphis mayor A C Wharton and city councilman Shea Flinn, both of whom lobbied the commission members hard against an override — are outraged that the county proposal, on the November ballot as a referendum item, supersedes their own half-cent sales tax-hike initiative.
To be sure, it's possible that one motive of the eight members who voted for the county tax increase and the override might have been that of undermining the suburbs' rush to create municipal school districts with the half-cent tax increases they had already passed, now also in danger of being superseded.
But a more compelling reason was spelled out accurately by commission chairman-designate Mike Ritz, author of the county tax-hike proposal. The Transition Planning Commission made it unmistakably clear that the deficit facing the fledgling Unified School District (in whatever incarnation) as of fall 2013 will be in the neighborhood of $60 million. Making "cuts," as Luttrell and several suburban commissioners suggested as an alternative to a tax increase, would have not made a significant dent in that sum, especially since the reductions recommended by the TPC are already reasonably severe.
About half of the $60 million to be raised by the new county levy, should it be approved, would be mandated for education — across the board countywide, it should be said, including proportional amounts for the suburban districts (districts "that are not absolutely necessary," said pro-tax commissioner Steve Mulroy, rubbing it in), if and when they come to pass. That amount still won't close the gap for the unified district, but it puts the county on the road to paying the bills, whereas the municipal versions of a half-cent increase would all bypass the unified district altogether.
As Commissioner Walter Bailey said, "There is no alternative." The merger is here, and so is the Unified School District, which, without new revenues, is destined to start out $60 million under the waterline in any future configuration, truncated or otherwise. And it's no coincidence that this amount is roughly the same as the amount that the city council decided to short the Memphis school system by in 2008 — an action that, as much as any other, served to bring on the current long-running crisis in local education.
Indeed, looking into the future, it is difficult to imagine any other plan that could serve as well as the half-cent county tax increase to resolve the maximum number of problems. Moreover, the city won't be enabled to blow all of the proceeds from a new tax increase to catch-up non-educational projects as it had planned. And the suburbs will have to proceed more slowly and carefully in setting up their new systems. This is all to the good.