The Ritz Maneuver 

The county commission’s chairman-elect pulls off a hat trick by proposing a county sales tax hike.

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Shelby County commissioner Mike Ritz — both the commission's chairman-designate and, paradoxically, its leading maverick — pulled off a legislative hat trick on Monday, successfully steering a resolution through the commission that enables a half-cent sales tax referendum proposal on the November 6 ballot.

click to enlarge Ritz (right) and colleague James Harvey brainstorming during debate on Monday - JB
  • JB
  • Ritz (right) and colleague James Harvey brainstorming during debate on Monday
In so doing, Ritz managed multiple one-up-manships — over suburban supporters of municipal school districts; over the city of Memphis; over Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell; and over a looming overall deficit in school financing countywide.

The countywide sales tax proposal, which prevailed by a 7-5 commission vote, takes precedence over the half-cent sales tax referenda passed early this month by several suburban municipalities; it will preempt an identical proposal enacted by the Memphis City Council last month; and it would present the commission with the opportunity to at least partially offset a $60 million shortfall forecast for the soon-to-be Unified School District by the Transition Planning Commission.

Luttrell weighed in during commission debate on Monday, opposing the proposal as "premature," but Ritz purportedly has in readiness the eighth vote needed to override a mayoral veto. That would be Commissioner Melvin Burgess Jr., who was absent on Monday.

Some icing on the cake for school-merger supporters came from the fact, attested to Monday by assistant county attorney Robert Rolwing, that if the county sales tax proposal makes it to the November ballot, it will be voted on solely by residents of Memphis, unincorporated areas of Shelby County, and Millington, which, alone of the six suburban municipalities with school-oriented sales tax referenda on the August 2nd ballot, had voted no.

(That vote may be misleading, however, as Millington residents have charged that residents of unincorporated Lucy were allowed by error to vote on the city referendum, which failed passage by only three votes. The Shelby County Election Commission has tentatively indicated a willingness to schedule a revote for November, but that issue, too, would be superseded by a county sales tax being on the ballot.)

During a typically agitated commission debate on the sales tax proposal, Commissioner Terry Roland, a famously outspoken Millington Republican and an opponent of the sales tax measure, became vexed enough to hurl some invective at Democrat Steve Mulroy, who, midway during a Roland philippic against the proposal as "an attack on the suburbs," had apparently cracked a smile.

"Here's the thing, Steve," Roland said, changing rhetorical course. "You can laugh if you want to, but you're about as low-down as I've ever seen in my life. ... You're an evil person. You sit there and think all day every day how you can screw people."

Mulroy received this unprecedented verbal abuse with a proud smile, for all the world like one of those Olympic winners we had seen during the previous two weeks receiving a gold medal around the neck. As off-handedly as possible, he professed a resolve to "turn the other cheek."

But in this case, Roland's invective may have been misdirected. Ritz was the one deserving the laurels, for better or worse.

And there was an intriguing back story. During all the rounds of recent voting for the chairmanship of the Shelby County Commission — a process that stretched out over a month and involved literally scores of different tallies — Ritz had employed a simple tactic.

Whenever his own name happened not to be in nomination — which was most of the time — Republican Ritz passed. Inasmuch as the same tactic was being employed by Sidney Chism, a Democrat and the current chairman who was angling for a third term, other candidates — notably Republican Wyatt Bunker and Democrat Henri Brooks — were locked into a stalemate, always a vote or two short of the majority needed for election.

The odds were always stacked against Ritz, it seemed; he was a Republican on a commission that was majority Democratic, but he sided with the Democrats on enough key issues — notably, redistricting and city/county school merger — that he couldn't count on GOP votes. Ultimately, he was able to prevail as the last man standing, being the second choice of enough commissioners on both sides to get a bare majority of seven when all other candidates had repeatedly failed.

What enhanced his chances finally was the very fact that had been his primary obstacle — a habit of trusting his own counsel on key matters, a fact which often has had him riding hobby horses and conducting impromptu seminars, chiefly on fiscal matters. As frustrating as that can be for his fellow commissioners, it has had the side effect of bolstering his credibility.

As his colleagues know, Ritz has been in the public-policy game for a while, with experience in both the private and governmental spheres. He has been the first director of the joint city/county office of planning and development, a bank officer with Leader Federal and Union Planters, a realtor, an investment manager, and an engineer.

Ritz has proved himself willing to be on the short end of 12-1 votes, but he also has an eye for the main chance, and he knows how to put together — or lend himself to — coalitions, as he did royally on Monday, the last public meeting of the commission before he himself becomes its chairman. 

Essentially, this was the same basic coalition that had prevailed on all matters relating to school merger — "the Democrats, plus Ritz," as Ritz himself imagines his fellow Republicans to be thinking. He will utter the phrase with a hint of amusement, or perhaps with an awareness of the irony that he seems to have inherited the mantle of principal GOP dissenter from former Commissioner Mike Carpenter, of whom he had often been critical.

It remains to be seen how the sales tax proposal turns out, but if Ritz and other backers of it are correct that there is an eight-vote commission majority in support of it, and if the voters in their turn approve it, it will have measurable consequences.

Unlike the case of a city sales tax, which would be superseded, at least 50 percent of the revenues raised by a county sales tax increase would, as Ritz noted, have to be allocated to the schools —"all the county schools, including the municipals."

But, according to tables passed out by Ritz on Monday, the county sales tax hike, which would also supersede the already voted-for increases in the suburbs, would reduce by as much as a half the potential sales tax proceeds of Collierville, Germantown, Bartlett, and Millington, while significantly enhancing those of Lakeland and Arlington. If approved by the voters, the tax increase would begin to be levied on countywide sales within 90 days of passage.

The proceeds of the tax, said Ritrz,would amount to "a $30 million arrow in our quiver" — capable of offsetting at least half of tghe aforesaid $60 million shortfall forecast by the TPC.

For the record, those voting "aye" for the sales tax increase on Monday were Ritz, Mulroy, Chism, Brooks, James Harvey, Walter Bailey, and Justin Ford. Those voting no were Bunker, Roland, Chris Thomas, Heidi Shafer, and Brent Taylor.

(NOTE This article has been revised to clarify two points: (1) The reeferendum measure passed by the Commission on Monday does not, as originally stated, require a second or third reading; and (2) Once approved by the voters on November 6, the tax would require no further action by the Commission or any other official body in order to be levied on sales purchases in Shelby County.)

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