Right Ways, Wrong Ways 

The City Council and County Commission are both dealing with intractable budgets.

T.S. Eliot had it wrong. April is not the "cruelest month," as the renowned poet wrote in "The Waste Land." For politicians, June is definitely crueler. That's the month when members of local legislative bodies, under the gun of a July 1st deadline —

the beginning of a new fiscal year — have to look into the muzzle and bite the oncoming bullet.

Yes, that's a painful metaphor, but the fact is, making ends meet in either city or county government is as painful as it gets these days. What members of the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission are having to do is figure out ways to do more with less. Way less. Property assessments are down, and, with them, so are the revenues that can be counted on to pay for basic services — the need for which has inconveniently stayed the same or, in most cases, risen.

Hence, the debates going on on both sides of the government plaza downtown. Things may be going a little smoother on the Shelby County side, where this week's first vote on county mayor Mark Luttrell's budget and proposed tax rate — both scheduled to increase — resulted in minimal changes. On first reading, at any rate. The outlook over in City Hall would seem to be somewhat more problematic. With a first vote scheduled for this week on Mayor A C Wharton's budget and tax proposals — equally geared upward — council resistance seemed a good deal stouter and more generalized, less confined to specific political or ideological points of view than was the case with the county commission.

In view of the discord, council budget chairman Jim Strickland began the week with a proposal of a two-week moratorium on voting, during which time a flurry of last-minute budget-cutting proposals might be vetted. Simultaneously, Strickland, a potential mayoral candidate down the line, who has advocated leaner city budgets for some time, has put out a news release citing state comptroller Justin Wilson's adverse report on Wharton's past refinancing practices as "scoop and toss" actions, hiding debt by throwing it into the future. Strickland maintains that revenue mechanisms within the mayor's current budget proposal are equally at fault.

That's civil indeed compared to tactics being employed by budget critics on the county side, where county commissioner Terry Roland is attempting to disenfranchise two advocates of the Luttrell budget via legal appeals to supposed allies in the legislature and to state attorney general Robert Cooper. Roland accuses fellow commissioners Sidney Chism and Melvin Burgess of conflicts of interest that, he alleges, make them ineligible to vote on budgetary matters. Chism has an interest in a day-care center that avails itself of various county "wraparound" services; Burgess has been internal audit director for Memphis City Schools and is transitioning to a similar role with the new Unified School System.

Concerned about Roland's charges, Chism has refrained from voting on the budget this week, though he did vote on the county tax rate. Burgess, the commission's budget chairman, reacted differently, disclosing the fact of his employment in advance of every vote but casting every vote, meanwhile denouncing what he called "bullying" tactics. We find his choice of terms apt.

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