Dueling Visions 

Luttrell and county commission make grudging progress toward a budget but are still scrapping over a tax rate.

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The voices of Shelby County commissioners audiby changed during the course of Monday's special meeting — a  marathon affair that had been called to deal with a budget that was already past its July 1st deadline. Toward the end of a meeting that started at 3 p.m. and adjourned at 10:15 p.m., the commissioners sounded either strident (maybe "strung out" is closer) or exhausted.

What had not changed was the substance of what they were saying. The commissioners — or at least what seems to be a working majority of them — remained fixed on a course that will give their constituents a tax cut of from 1 to 3 cents on a still-to-be-determined tax rate.

Mayor Mark Luttrell, who was as edgy as anybody on Monday, went with the flow and reluctantly consented to budget amendments that cut close into what he sees as a necessary fiscal reserve. But he is clearly resolved to do what he can between now and the fixing of the tax rate to either scale back the amendments or keep the rate close to the level of 4.13 cents, a status-quo figure adjusted to the latest county property assessment and designed to generate the same amount of revenue as the current pre-assessment rate of 4.37 cents.

Luttrell made it clear that he wants to have enough of a discretionary fund on hand to deal with exigencies. That was the case also two years ago, when the administration and the commission had a similar disagreement, one that ultimately saw a win for the mayor in the slowing down of what had been a pell-mell move toward a tax decrease and then the aborting of that tax-cut initiative altogether.

Luttrell had held the line back then, pleading that the county had infrastructure needs (it plainly did), and the tax rate held firm. The mayor's victory proved to be a pyrrhic one, however — especially as the county's general fund, even with a good deal of overdue paving and other infrastructure work taken care of, turned out in an ad hoc audit to have a significant and unforeseen surplus: upwards of $20 million. That was enough, contended the commission's tax relief advocates, to have underwritten the gift to the taxpayers that they had intended but, ultimately, under pressure from the administration, had backed away from.

That was essentially the casus belli for what has turned out to be a two-year power struggle between the mayor and his commissioners. The commission, with two fired-up Republicans, Heidi Shafer of East Memphis and Terry Roland of Millington in the lead, and with a sufficient number of other suburban Republicans, along with fellow-traveling inner-city Democrats, following, began campaigning for new commission perks, including a greater share in budgetary decisions, and to that purpose, the acquisition of an independent commission attorney so as to augment its own oversight.

The commission ultimately got a lawyer approved, former commissioner Julian Bolton, though both his title and his function are more tightly circumscribed than the commissioners preferred. And the battle goes on, with both sides taking as much as they can and giving up as little as they have to. Right now the $4.10 tax rate seems to be holding, but sans a vote, some or all of that hard-earned three-cent discount could vanish in further negotiation, as could other budget goodies voted on on Monday. (More details this week in Politics Beat blog.)

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