Brewing Budget Fight? 

Commission wrangles over Pre-K funding; Governor Lee backs criminal justice reform.

It's a complicated business, requiring serious mathematical ability and diplomatic skills. That's the dilemma facing Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and the members of the Shelby County Commission, who must decide whether to allocate an additional $2.5 million for add-on pre-K seats and, if so, how to account for that extra funding in an already strapped 2019-20 budget.

County government, already committed to an ambitious pre-K program in tandem with the city of Memphis, faces an excess of demands on its budget — an estimated $78 million in proposed new obligations — coupled with a shortfall in revenues, and the problem is exacerbated by a recent decision by Shelby County Schools to increase the number of planned pre-K seats for the coming fiscal year, as well as the imminent end of a federal grant to help offset costs.There is also the matter of parsing out what Shelby County government is obligated to do to fulfill its share of the pre-K burden, settling on a management partner, and foraging for additional funding from sources outside government.

The dilemma created a rift at Monday's commission meeting between those, including Harris, who wanted to put off a decision on the funding matter — pending some hard decisions regarding other demands upon the budget — and those who favored an immediate decision.

click to enlarge Governor Lee at Memphis Re-Entry Forum - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Governor Lee at Memphis Re-Entry Forum

At one point Democratic Commissioner Michael Whaley, co-author with Republican Mark Billingsley of a resolution to add the $2.5 million to the budget, accused Harris of "an absence of leadership" and of seeking a "political benefit" from a show of frugality. Whaley drew applause from attendees with the line, "You don't get a second chance at being a 4-year-old."

That refrain was picked up by GOP Commissioner Brandon Morrison. And Commissioner Edmund Ford added to the pressure by picking up on Whaley's reference to a statement that Harris had made during his 2006 race for Congress. The mayor, then a law professor at the University of Memphis, had boasted about being the only teacher in the field of candidates.

"Did I just hear that the mayor was going to run for Congress next year?" Ford muttered, somewhat audibly, conflating that old contest with frequent rumors about Harris' future political ambitions.

But in the end, the commission put the matter on hold, pending further discussion at next Wednesday's regularly scheduled committee meetings. Harris indicated that he would do his best to tap private sources to amplify the amount available.

Meanwhile, the commission approved a first reading of the proposed county tax rate of $4.05 per $100 of assessed value, holding firm at the current level, and passed a resolution, revived from last year, asking Governor Bill Lee and the General Assembly to grant local jurisdictions leeway in assigning penalties for first conviction for possession of modest amounts of marijuana.

• As part of his follow-through on his stated mission to seek criminal justice reform, Lee stopped in Memphis on Tuesday to deliver the keynote address at a forum on re-entry at the University of Memphis, where he shared a stage of the University Center ballroom with Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission head Bill Gibbons; Dr. Thomas Nenon, the University of Memphis provost; and Beverly Robertson, president and CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce. Lee said criminal justice reform had been a "longtime passion" of his, stemming from his own hands-on experience in mentoring a released prisoner back into the productive workaday world.

"The cost of incarceration is not zero," he said, denoting one of the main purposes of re-entry reform, that of lowering the cost of imprisonment to society, direct and indirect. Another major aim was that of filling in the blanks of a needy and expanding workforce. The rate of unemployment for newly released inmates was 27 percent, he said — a wasteful and unnecessary statistic given today's technological means for overseeing prisoner re-entry, including GPS monitoring.

"We can move the needle," Lee said. "We can lead the nation."

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