Tuesday, May 20, 2003



Posted By on Tue, May 20, 2003 at 4:00 AM

One of the more remarkable sights to be had on Friday night, whose torrential rains and persistent tornado threats curtailed a session of the barbecue festival, was that of A C Wharton, dressed to the nines and paying a ceremonial visit to the tent of which he and 9th District U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. were the titular impresarios. Even in that environment, shortly to become pandemonium, the Shelby County mayor looked immaculate and unflappable as he bestowed some gracious banter on a group of visiting German tourists, who became instant admirers all. And on the evening before, at a big-ticket East Memphis fund-raiser for his governmental counterpart, Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, Wharton had pulled off an equally impressive trick. Asked what the current state of his budget was, Wharton looked upward reflectively and became an instant abacus. “Let’s see, there was a debt trade-off here...” he calculated it as worth $4 million, “...and reductions worth such-and-such here...” he gave the actual numbers, “...and applying a 5-percent spending cut here...” he paused and toted, “...all that puts the deficit at $29 million, down from $44 million, which means” he paused and toted again, “...as of right now we’re looking at a 25-cent property-tax increase.” Only a day or two before, the morning newspaper had put the number at 41 cents, but that was before the county mayor and his team went back to what these days is the constant task of number-crunching. The 25-cent figure, Wharton indicated was hot off his own interior press, and the result of a good deal of jawboning and other effort. One is tempted to say “arm-twisting,” except that dapper, almost dainty Shelby County mayor is clearly no bully boy and works almost exclusively through charm and good manners and gentle persuasion. Not to omit the aura of good faith he communicates. It was clear that he was disappointed that a predictably well-orchestrated pressure campaign by local homebuilders and developers had forced both himself and the Shelby County commission to put off for a year any real consideration of his proposed “Altered Facilities Tax,” a de facto impact fee. “But we’re not going to lose any potential revenue as a result of that,” Wharton said philosophically. “And it’s important to set up something recurrent that we can depend on that everybody can agree on.” His own use of the word “recurrent” made him wince a bit, as he recalled the deluge of complaints that he, like the several previous Shelby County mayors, had received about the notorious “wheel tax,” first passed during the Bill Morris administration to cover the costs of upgrading public education -- then as now the squeaky wheel of county government. “I never stop hearing about that damn thing!” Wharton exclaimed, his game smile hardly masking the genuine pain of recollection. The task now, especially since the Altered Facilities Tax has been put on hold, is to find another “damn thing” that will pass muster with enough of the contentious pressure groups in Shelby County to get by a perpetually divided and squeamish commission. One possibility is a payroll tax, and, after the homebuilders and developers pumped for it as an alternative to the AFT, he carefully began to drop it into his public discourse and to seed the idea with friendly members of the commission -- like Deidre Malone, a newly elected Democrat (like Wharton) who brings it up every chance she has. Participants in the public weal as diverse as mega-developer Ron Belz and Commissioner John Willingham, an unorthodox Republican also elected just last year, are talking the idea up in tandem with the idea of a proportionately discounted property tax -- a sop which they hope will appeal to big employers like FedEx’s Fred Smith, widely credited with killing the payroll tax the last time it reared itself. A C Wharton is optimistic that a solution will be found. Like Governor Phil Bredesen, another moderate Democrat and yet another reigning public official birthed in the fiscal desert of 2002, he is skilled enough to sell the idea of across-the-board cuts. His five--per-cent variety is close kin to the governor’s nine-percent version, and, like it, may be subject to a modicum of negotiaton before it or something like it gets into the lawbooks. “We gotta find something,” says A C Wharton, looking both determined and patient, knowing that anybody less trusted or less mellow would have hell to pay. And so may he, if the current purgatory which, for better or worse, constitutes his moment extends too far.

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