Under Challenge 

In advance of budget resolutions, a variety of other fiscal and social issues rose to the fore.

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As city and county legislative bodies prepare for 11th-hour attempts next week to get their budgets in order before the July 1st fiscal-year deadline, a variety of other financial and procedural questions will preoccupy them this week, especially in Shelby County government.

Wheel tax: One of the recurrent squawks from the local body politic has to do with the county wheel tax, first instituted in 1987 as a way of retiring school construction bonds. The gripe pops up every now and then at public meetings when this or that citizen rises to complain that the tax, which was originally billed as a one-time-only expedient, is still with us.

It has proved expedient — supporters would say "necessary" — to maintain the tax, which has been increased and twice modified, most recently in 2007, when half of wheel tax revenues were allocated to repay school bonded indebtedness and half to the schools for capital needs and operations.

At present, the tax, paid when vehicles are registered or renewed, is exacted on each private passenger vehicle at the rate of $50, on commercial vehicles at $80, and on motorcycles, scooters, and similar leisure vehicles at $20. Church vehicles get a special rate of $25.

On Wednesday, the Shelby County Commission's budget committee will consider a resolution to reallocate the proceeds of the wheel tax, which amount to something like $30 million annually, according to a revised formula: 100 percent (or whatever percentage proves necessary) to school operations, with any remainder there is going to retired bonded indebtedness.

Quite obviously, the change is prompted by the current austere fiscal environment, which sees most governmental entities, including the schools, forced to make cuts and straining to meet their operating needs.

Mike Ritz and Mike Carpenter, the chair and vice-chair of the budget committee, respectively, both use the term "no big deal" to suggest that the change is, or ought to be, a routine, noncontroversial matter. That, however, is not the view of their fellow Republican, Terry Roland, who has indicated that, in the mode of one of those citizens rising at a town meeting over the years to complain about the wheel tax, he will question the need for continuing it.

Family planning services: Last week, state health commissioner Susan Cooper doubled down on an earlier request that county health departments in Tennessee agree to be the sole recipients of and dispensers of Title X federal funds for family planning services. The backstory of that was the disinclination of a Republican-dominated state government, especially in the person of Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, the powerful state Senate speaker, to continue funding Planned Parenthood's involvement with these services.

State senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) succeeded in passing legislation that would defund Planned Parenthood as a conduit for Title X monies, but his bill turned out to have an add-on clause, the origin of which is still unexplained, that effectively negated its central premise. Since that discovery, opponents of Planned Parenthood, which social conservatives regard as a promoter of abortion, have attempted to accomplish the purging of the nonprofit organization through executive means.

Hence the pressure from Cooper, who dispatched a letter last week to the health departments of Shelby County and Davidson County (Nashville), urging them both to voluntarily accept the status of sole Title X recipients, which Campfield's bill would have mandated. The Davidson County Health Department knuckled under, while indicating it would have to cut back the volume of its services. Yvonne Madlock, director of the Shelby County Health Department, temporized, telling Cooper that she was still hoping to develop local partners to "make sure that those resources that have been dedicated to Shelby County come to Shelby County."

The fact was, Madlock explained, that the county health department, by itself, "does not have the current capacity" to serve the sizable target population of lower-income women and families in need of family planning services, which, as noted by herself and others (among them, spokespersons for Planned Parenthood itself), include a large variety of needs unrelated to abortion.

Before committing herself, Madlock requested, and got, a one-week extension of a deadline Cooper had originally set for last Friday. Asked if her search for partners in administering the Title X funds would include Planned Parenthood, Madlock said she had not resolved yet either "to include or to exclude" Planned Parenthood. She did acknowledge that the organization possessed the experience and the independent fund-raising capability that she considered necessary for a family planning partner.

Office of Early Childhood and Youth: A third ongoing dilemma in county government concerns whether the Shelby County Commission will reverse an 8-3 vote it took last week that effectively defunded OECY, a county agency that came into being to prepare generalized child-impact statements but has broadened its scope to become a clearing house for state and federal funding in support of an abundance of child-related issues.

The outlook for a reversal of the vote to defund OECY to the tune of some $450,000 appeared promising, in light of urging to do so from such figures as Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell and 9th District congressman Steve Cohen and in view of some simple arithmetic.

First of all, commission chairman Sidney Chism's vote against funding was widely regarded as a "prevailing-side" vote, meaning that, sizing up the likely result last Monday, he voted the way he did so that, as a member of the prevailing side, he could call for a revote next Monday, June 20th, when the commission meets again in public session.

Switch Chism over, and the margin becomes 7-4. Add votes on OECY's behalf from two Democrats, Steve Mulroy, who was vacationing last Monday, and James Harvey, who was in attendance but left before the vote on OECY, probably in response to the unexpected appearance in the county building of a woman with a private grievance screeching threats and insults at him. The margin now becomes 7-6.

All that would be needed to reverse last Monday's judgment would be a crossover of one vote — probably from a Democrat, likely Justin Ford. Most likely not from Henri Brooks, whose vote against OECY was interpreted by colleagues as a continuation of her feud with Division of Community Services director Dottie Jones.

Jones has argued, as did Carpenter last Monday, that defunding OECY would simultaneously leave the county short of leveraged state and federal funding, some $6 million of which would be routed to OECY in its role as clearing house for a variety of child-related programs. In public statements, both Luttrell and Cohen have underscored that argument.

• A coalition of activists gathered on Sunday at First Congregational Church for a "Justice for All" rally to protest some of the effects of this year's legislative actions (and some local governmental deeds as well). Michelle Bliss of the Tennessee Equality Project, moderator for the event, began by proclaiming, "We're here, we're together, and we will not be quiet!"

Jacob Flowers of the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center described the current political environment as "a deficiency of love ... from City Hall to Nashville to Washington."

For Katy Smith of Planned Parenthood, the issue was state government's current push to exclude her organization from involvement with federally funded family planning services. For Marian Bacon, a disabled person, the adversary was the newly enacted HB 600, a bill prohibiting local nondiscrimination ordinances.

Gaby Benitez noted legislative efforts aimed at immigrants and broke into tears as she expressed a fear that her father would be deported before he could see her graduate from the University of Memphis.

Shelley Seeberg of AFSCME lamented efforts on the City Council to out-source sanitation work, as well as a vote by the Shelby County Commission to reduce pension levels for public employees.

In concluding, Will Batts, executive director of the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, echoed Bliss: "Our opponents want us insular with tunnel vision. We will be stronger, more effective if we work together. ... We will speak together, we will shout together, and we will win that way."

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