Friday, August 15, 2003

A Moving Target

Sheriff Luttrell's budget can be added -- or subtracted -- several different ways.

Posted By on Fri, Aug 15, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Of all the facts that are taken for granted in this political and governmental year, none has been more uncontroverted publicly than the following, concerning the office of Sheriff Mark Luttrell, still in his first year as Shelby County's chief constitutional law-enforcement officer:

As the scenario goes: The highly regarded Luttrell, formerly county corrections department supervisor, came into office after campaigning last year on a pledge of fiscal solvency, promising to eliminate the excess spending that had characterized the administration of his tarnished predecessor, A.C. Gilless. The new sheriff, who beat several opponents handily, then set about fulfilling his promise.

First, he eliminated more than 500 positions, most of them in a blatantly overstaffed jail, where nepotism and cronyism had long padded the payroll. The savings attributed to this amounted to $19 million.

Next, Luttrell found himself pushed to the wall by the requirements of a budgetary process he has characterized as "Draconian" and was forced to make a series of further reductions. These, after some serious bargaining with the administration of county mayor A C Wharton and the Shelby County Commission, finally came to some $8.5 million -- cutting his departmental needs to the bone.

Luttrell had fended off even further and more damaging cuts by several means, including a public threat to sue Shelby County government, direct appeals in the media (including an op-ed in The Commercial Appeal), and telling appeals on his behalf, like those made by several sheriffs' deputies to the Shelby County Commission on Monday.

All these approaches had their effect, and both the administration and the commission eventually signed off on an understanding, made public at the commission meeting, that Luttrell could avail himself of another $2 million during the course of the current fiscal year if he could make the case that he required it.

All in all, an impressive accomplishment for a persevering public official, and there is much in this accepted version of events that still rings true.

There is, however, another way to look at it -- and one that stands all these circumstances, and the accepted interpretation of them, on their heads.

Commissioner Tom Moss couldn't shake a doubt or two after Monday's meeting -- which concluded with Luttrell's having been granted a budget in the neighborhood of $126,250,000 and that tacit understanding of another $2 million to come. "Where," asked Moss, "did that $19 million go?"

His question was predicated on the following circumstance: That Luttrell's requested budget of record for the current fiscal year was $134 million and that figure, minus his currently awarded budget of $126-and-a-quarter million, yielded a figure of $7-and-a-quarter million.

How did that square, Moss wondered, with the previously reported voluntary cuts of $19 million, which, when added to the $8.5 million in additional reductions required by the budgetary process, add up to more than $24 million? That's a difference of $17 million.

In other words, if the reported cuts were to be subtracted from his requested budget, Luttrell's budget for the current fiscal year would be expected to be in the neighborhood of $110 million -- not $126 million.

As it turned out, Moss wasn't the only commissioner puzzled by the discrepancy in the arithmetic, which depends on some highly creative accounting. It is the sort of calculation that Commissioner Bruce Thompson, at several points in the budget process, characterized (though not especially with reference to the sheriff's department) as "moving target" bookkeeping.

Here are some of the particulars, as vouched for by the commission's chief administrator and acknowledged budget maven, Grace Hutchinson.

™ The figure of $19 million in reported cuts in paid positions includes a number of positions that had been vacant for some time, as well as many that had never been filled. The actual fiscal reduction in jobs actually held by real functioning employees? Perhaps as low as $4 million.

™ Further, last year's baseline figure of $138 million against which the current budget is measured is not the true yardstick, because it includes an add-on figure of some $13 million in additional ad hoc appropriations granted to Luttrell during the course of the year. Without that, Luttrell's budget for the coming year would be the same as that enjoyed by his "spendthrift" predecessor.

™ Moreover, the case can be made that the legitimate cuts made by Luttrell -- and these are quite real, consisting in the main of jail positions -- when added to and/or subtracted from the actual budgetary figures from the relevant years, leave him in possession of some $7 million more this year than he enjoyed last year.

That figure is arrived at by taking his face-value budget of fiscal 2002-03, with its additions, which is $138 million, then subtracting the face-value $19 million in claimed cuts, which leaves $119 million, and then comparing that figure to the actual allocated spending-money budget of $126,250,000, which the sheriff's department will have at its disposal this year. That's an apparent gain of $7 million. Confused? So has almost everybody been during the course of the current budget year. It's just that Luttrell has been such a success in his public relations that few critics have taken a long, hard look at his numbers. Stay tuned. We'll probably revisit this subject.™

In Passing

The calendar of late has included an usual number of deaths of prominent public figures, with a conspicuous overlapping of mourners.

There was the death of Memphis school board member Lee Brown, whose quiet and conscientious mien had impressed all members and all factions of an often fractious board. Although Brown, who doubled as a minister, had attempted to downplay his illness, he had been suffering from the effects of cancer for more than a year.

There was the passing, reported last week, of 80-year-old music legend Sam Phillips, the "godfather of rock-and-roll," whose public and political concerns had always been more extensive than were generally realized. Phillips lay in state at Memorial Park Funeral Home last Wednesday, attracting an unending line of people, ranging from his faceless fellow citizens to the famous, who paid their respects from 3:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. A "celebration" the next day at the Cannon Performing Arts Center downtown crowned the observance.

There was the death of longtime Memphis political eminence Bill Farris, who himself had almost reached the age of 80. Hundreds of visitors would pay their respects at the Farris home on Sweetbrier on Friday and attend the funeral on Saturday at Eudora Baptist Church. Among them were Governor Phil Bredesen and former Governor Ned McWherter and countless eminences from the political and governmental worlds, including all factions and parties. (Symbolizing this was the participation in the funeral rites of Republican Brent Taylor and Democrat John Ford, both principals of funeral homes and both friends of the deceased.)

Two Memphians, entrepreneur Charlie Burch and Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, recalled in their visits to the Farris home on Friday separate occasions on which they had sat in a back room at Farris' and knocked back a cocktail with -- the aforesaid Sam Phillips.

Finally, there was the death just this week of Oscar Mason, a longtime local Republican activist who had been instrumental -- even of late, when his health was visibly failing -- in attempting to broaden the appeal and outreach of his party to his fellow African Americans.

It is often said after the death of someone prominent that we are the less for their passing. After last week, we are much the less. But much the greater too for the public legacies and contributions of the deceased. ™

The Whole Truth? (Not Really)

The following exchange, lifted directly from a videotape of the event, occurred last week during an attempted interview of MLGW officials by Bill Lunn, a reporter for WMC-TV, Action News 5. Lunn had for two or three minutes been questioning MLGW CEO Herman Morris in Morris' office about details of the utility's ongoing cleanup after last month's windstorm, then attempted to move on to another matter -- the still hazy one of why MLGW turned away offers of help from Mississippi-based Entergy, Inc.

Before Morris could answer, MLGW public relations officer Mark Heuberger, who had arranged the interview, interrupted: "I let you into his private office and you're bringing up this crap!"

"Well, these are legitimate questions," Lunn responded.

Heuberger then said, "Well, we're not gonna -- you know," and signaled that the interview was at an end.

Lunn said that, up until that point, Morris had attempted faithfully to answer without evasion all questions put -- unless one counts the following answer to a pointed question of Lunn's about points raised in the Flyer's coverage of the post-storm aftermath:

"I don't read the Flyer," Morris maintained.

Lunn said he was dubious about the authenticity of that answer. ™

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