In Ponderosa's Box 

At the conclusion on Monday of what had been a marathon discussion of a resolution aimed, ever so indirectly, at prohibiting discrimination against Shelby County employees based on sexual orientation, the Shelby County Commission next turned to the rest of its agenda. In an emotional sense, it was a moment of anticlimax. In the larger governmental and political senses, it was anything but. In the vernacular of politics, there was a lot still left on the commissioners' plates — much of it potentially unpalatable.

The next item up on an agenda that would stretch through the middle evening was a measure to establish a new prevailing wage ordinance for the county. In seeking to table the ordinance, which ultimately passed, Commissioner Mike Ritz invoked a malapropism once uttered by a member of a previous commission, Minerva Johnican. Ritz asked that this measure, too, like one which Johnican had opposed a generation ago, be relegated to "Ponderosa's Box."

The commission and the City Council now find themselves beset with difficult issues that have lain dormant for too long and now swirl about them. Worse, they can't be stuffed back into the box — Ponderosa's, Pandora's, or whoever's.

The most vexing issue for both bodies is budgetary. The commission and council are each faced with an approaching fiscal-year deadline with numbers that perversely just won't add up.

In the case of the commission, most of the discussion Monday afternoon, as before, had to do with draconian personnel cuts proposed across the board of county agencies and departments. Some 100 employees overall, 31 of them in the Sheriff's Department, were slated for the outbox unless the commission chose to authorize new revenues. County mayor A C Wharton had made it clear he welcomed such a development, but the commission would have to make the first move.

Against all odds, it did so on Monday — though it needed to employ some rhetorical sleight of hand. The present county tax rate is $4.04 per $100 of assessed value, with the rate applied by state law to only 25 percent of that value (thus, $1,515 annually in the case of a property assessed at $150,000). Acting on a motion by Commissioner Mike Carpenter, the commission gave its preliminary approval to lowering the tax rate to $4.02, and the debate centered around whether that figure represented a tax-rate reduction or a tax increase. In actual fact, it is something of both, since the 2008 appraisal carried out by the county assessor's office was substantially higher, on average, than previous appraisals. Lower rate plus higher assessed values equals more revenue — and more tax required of most property owners.

The City Council's dilemma is similar (see Viewpoint, p. 17), with council members facing an unappetizing choice between retrenchment of city services or a possible tax increase. The council's choice is complicated by the fact of still unresolved litigation involving the extent of city government's financial obligations to Memphis City Schools. However the council ultimately resolves the problem, something will have to give. What is required is some serious original thinking — outside the box, as it were.



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