Thursday, May 21, 2015

Shelby County Commissioners Budget-Cut Their Way to a Kumbaya

Provisional agreement on $1.1 billion for fiscal 2015-16 comes with unexpected ease; SCS, Sheriff’s Department, other divisions take a hit.

Posted By on Thu, May 21, 2015 at 4:01 AM

click to enlarge Commissioners Steve Basar and Eddie Jones - JB
  • JB
  • Commissioners Steve Basar and Eddie Jones

To say that the members of the Shelby County Commission wheeled and dealed for the better part of the day of Wednesday is neither an exaggeration nor a slam, especially since their chief point of consensus — a compromise on a Shelby County Schools funding request — was arrived at by manipulating the proceeds of the county’s longstanding wheel tax.

The architect of — or at least the spokesman for — that deal was County CAO Harvey Kennedy, who, on behalf of the administration, proposed to free up $10 million of wheel-tax proceeds as a way of partially accommodating an SCS request of $14.9 million more than the school district had originally sought in the fiscal 2015-16 budget.

Of the $10 million freed up, $7.9 million would go toward satisfying SCS’ needs, while the balance would go to Shelby County’s six suburban school districts under the state-ordained average-daily-attendance (ADA) distribution formula.

Kennedy had also suggested that SCS should reduce the amount of its original add-on request by applying $4.4 million of its estimated $178 million fund balance toward one of the matters on its wish list, the purchase of new computers. The CAO’s argument — that using the district’s reserves (larger than usual and the occasion of raised eyebrows among some commissioners) to buy the computers was appropriate, since this would be a one-time expense, rather than an annual recurring one.

Kennedy’s argument for the compromise proposal satisfied most of the Commissioners, though Walter Bailey, one of two nay voters, objected that there was “no rational explanation for second-guessing” the SCS request.

Bailey, joined at times by Eddie Jones or Melvin Burgess of both, would object to most of the Commission’s budget decisions on Wednesday, though the majority of Commissioners, across party lines, proved amenable, on budget item after budget item, to the idea of paring down requests for additional money by various divisions.

Approved along with the $10 million add-on for public education was an accompanying recommendation that SCS apply its $7.9 share toward the reduction of OPEB (other post-employment benefits) costs, the source of much concern at a crash session on educational funding called by budget chair Heidi Shafer on Monday. But county attorney Ross Dyer pointed out the obvious: The Commission can decide how much to appropriate, but it cannot direct how the school district spends its money.

As it happened the vote on additional school funding, the first matter taken up in the Commission’s afternoon session, broke the ice and led to agreement on a series of further reductions on add-on spending requests. Commissioner Steve Basar’s statement, “We’ve got to say No to somebody,” made early in the budget discussion (which lasted until early evening) might have been a watchword for the entire proceeding.

The Sheriff’s Department saw its request for $2 million add-on rejected outright, prompting Steve Leech, Chief of Security for the Department, to contend that a planned transfer of Juvenile Court security functions to the Sheriff’s Department might be jeopardized.

The Public Defender’s Office saw its request for funding increase cut from $942,000 to $500,000; the District Attorney General’s Office would lose half of its requested add-on amount of $419,000. And the same formula, or some variant, was applied to the funding increases sought by division after division.

In the end, the Commission’s budget recommendation was well within the $1.1 billion target amount sought by Mayor Mark Luttrell. One remaining issue — to be resolved on June 1, when the Commission holds its next regular business meeting — is the fate of what has been presumed to be a preliminary $6 million surplus. Several commissioners argued that it should be applied to a one-cent reduction in the county property-tax rate.

"If we can find that penny, it would be perfect!" as David Reaves put it.

Mayor Luttrell had another thought — to forgo the idea of a tax decrease in favor of using the money to rehab the county’s infrastructure, conceded by virtually all members of the Commission to be afflicted by potholes, deterioration, and blight.

That conversation will be continued on June 1, as will the county tax rate, essentially left unresolved, though, as Shafer pointed out, a failure to match the tax rate up with the budget would be a matter of “cognitive dissonance.” Worse, it would be illegal.

The Commission’s work began early on Wednesday morning, with the usual round of committee meetings (mixed in with a briefing from two representatives of the Chamber of Commerce about the potentially dire fiscal and developmental predicaments facing the county) and continued past lunch with a lengthy interview session involving a dozen or so applicants for the vacant position of Judicial Commissioner.

One idea, floated in the morning sessions and approved during the afternoon budget discussion, was a proposal by Commissioner Reginald Milton to change the way in which the Commission distributes grant funds to non-profits. Henceforth, instead of the Commission deciding at large on requests for grants by would-be recipients, the sum set aside for the purpose will be divided 13 ways, and all Commissioners will decide on how grant funds should be allocated within their own districts.

Unlike the case with most decisions made on Wednesday, the amount of money allocated for this purpose in the coming fiscal year was not scaled down from the original sum mentioned but jumped up, from $1.5 million ($115,000 per commissioner) to $1,950,000 ($150,000 for each commissioner).

The idea of giving each commissioner the power of decision on individual grants (formally subject to the approval of the entire Commission) proved highly popular, even to those Commissioners who were determined to make reductions in the case of other appropriations. When Mark Billingsley wondered out loud where “the $400,000 variance” from original to final allocation would be coming from, Terry Roland responded, “We can find the money, OK. And it’s the right thing to do with our districts.”

As Commissioner Basar commented, the revised way of distributing grant money may have been an “unintended consequence” of the Commission’s decision, after the 2010 census, to go to single-member districts.

And, although no one drew the connection on Wednesday, it all was reminiscent of an occasion in 2007, when the then Democratic leadership of the Tennessee General Assembly voted to divide an unexpected year-end surplus proportionally between members as “community-improvement grants” for them to distribute in their districts.” That was when Brian Kelsey of Germantown, then a state representative and later a state senator, made something of a name for himself, by slapping some bacon in an envelope and making a show of returning his share of the “pork” to House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh.

Toward the end of the marathon day, the Commission succumbed to an air of satisfaction and kumbaya bordering on giddy. “We’ve been a good group,” said Shafer. “We’ve learned to collaborate,” said David Reaves. And others ventured similar sentiments.

There was even time for a little in-joke humor, as when Shafer, who was an assistant to her employer, George Flinn, for several years before being elected to Flinn’s seat in her own right, recommended a strategy to fellow Commissioners having a hard time making up their minds on this or that matter. “You can do the Marilyn Loeffel bathroom vote,” she said, recalling how former Commissioner Loeffel, as Shafer put it, would absent herself to the nearest powder room in the case of a controversial vote, returning when all was safe and sound.

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