Numbed by the Numbers: County Commission Struggles to Agree on Budget 

Separate attempts to produce a budget for Shelby County failed to produce anything resembling a consensus on a marathon meeting day of the County Commission on Monday. Commission Chairman Mark Billingsley said he intends to call a special meeting for next week to see if the process can be expedited.
click to enlarge Commission Chairman Mark Billingsley - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Commission Chairman Mark Billingsley

Billingsley told his fellow commissioners the called meeting would likely be necessary in the interests of reaching agreement on a budget, with the new fiscal year just around the corner on July 1st.

The Memorial Day holiday next week forces an adjustment of the normal schedule, which would mandate a day of committee meetings during the week, preparatory to the next regular commission meeting the week after. The holiday forces the entire sequence to occur a week later, with committee meetings scheduled for June 3rd and the next regular public meeting to be on June 8th.

Hence the need for a called meeting, especially since Monday’s meetings — a special called budget meeting, starting at 11 a.m., followed by the regular Commission meeting at 3 p.m — became embroiled in complications that were still unsnarled when the commission adjourned at nearly midnight.

“We’re getting into another day,” said budget chair Eddie Jones wearily, with the clock moving toward the witching hour and one of the Webinar meeting’s participants, an administration staffer participating from home and having to alternate her contributions with soothing words for a restless two-year-old. “That sounds wonderful,” was the wistful comment of Commissioner Mick Wright on this audible reminder of a domestic life beyond numbers-crunching.

Various formulas have been adduced for dealing with a looming budget deficit that had looked to be as large as $10 million even before the effects of the coronavirus crisis pushed things even further into fiscal crisis.

In mid-April, County Mayor Lee Harris had proposed a $1.4 billion “lean and balanced” budget, with $13.6 million in specified cuts offset by a $16.50 raise in the county’s motor vehicle registration tax, a.k.a. the wheel tax. A majority of commissioners could not be found to agree, and alternative budget proposals, all with different versions of austerity, have since been floated, one by Commissioner Brandon Morrison, another by budget chair Jones, working more or less in tandem with vice chair Edmund Ford.

Among the issues raised by Monday’s day-long discussion was that of whether, as county Chief Financial Officer Mathilde Crosby contended, the proposals offered by Jones and Ford focused overmuch on cuts in administrative departments, thereby paralleling what has been something of a running feud between Harris and Ford based, as more than a few observers see it, as a potential long-term political rivalry between the two.

Crosby also offered criticism that the Jones-Ford proposals for budget-cutting ignored distinctions between the county's general fund and various dedicated funds for mandated functions.

Another potential issue is that of the county tax rate, currently pegged at $4.05 per $100 of assessed value. Commissioner Reginald Milton, for one, believes that the rate is set artificially low because of simple mathematical error and that this factor is bound to doom the county to endless future variations of the current budget scramble until the rate is recalculated. The current rate has so far been reaffirmed in two of the three readings required for passage.

The budget issue is predominating over other matters, though the commission did reach an agreement Monday on what had been a controversial proposal by Commissioner Tami Sawyer for an ordinance requiring, on penalty of $50 fine, that residents and visitors wear protective face masks in public areas. Sawyer recast her proposal in the form of a resolution requesting such a requirement by the Health Department but providing for no fine. The resolution passed 8-5 on a party-line vote, with the Commission’s Democrats voting for and the Republicans voting against.

Another matter of consequence that awaits the commission is the matter of new voting machines for Shelby County. The commission has twice voted a preference that the county invest in a system of hand-marked paper ballots in time for the August county general election and federal-state primaries, but the Shelby County Election Commission has approved the recommendation of Election Administrator Linda Phillips that new ballot-marking machines from the ES&S Company be purchased instead.

With the elections approaching, the need for a decision soon increases. The process requires that Harris sign an order authorizing the purchase of a new system, after which the commission must vote for its funding. At issue is whether the commission will approve the Phillips/SCEC request or act according to its own preference for the hand-marked system.

A sizable and well-organized group of local activists is pushing for the latter option, on grounds, among others, that a system of hand-marked ballots would be cheaper, more transparent, and less vulnerable to hacking.

Other, related aspects of the controversy include allegations from the activist ranks of potential conflicts of interest involving Phillips and family members and a concern that purchase of the ES&S machines would involve an implicit need to purchase a new voter-registration system from the same company.

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