Chairman Pro Tempore Mark Billingsley (left) asked some hard questions of Shelby County Assessor Melvin Burgess during his presentation, but Billingsley later thanked Burgess for taking the time to come out and explain his proposed budget. (Photo: Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

It’s budget season again.

Meaning it’s time for those budget hearings by the Shelby County Commissioners which allow department directors and office holders to make their pitch for full funding of the upcoming fiscal year. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

Wednesday morning’s meeting opened with Shelby County Assessor of Property Melvin Burgess making the case for an increase in next year’s fiscal budget by $147,352.

“Shelby County operates differently from the rest of the state appraisers,” said Burgess. “We have auditors in Shelby County, and we want to qualify them to be appraisers with two courses, Appraisals 101 and 102. And we are understaffed right now.

“We keep hitting a ceiling because we can only pick up 42,000 personal property accounts,” Burgess continued. “We should be picking up 100,000 personal property accounts. All that money is just left on the table.”

Commission Chairman Van Turner presided over the hearing until he had to leave. Chairman Pro Tempore Mark Billingsley stepped in during the commissioners’ question-and-answer session with Burgess.

In addition to the personal property, Burgess said that he is also looking at PILOTs (Payment In Lieu of Tax) for corporations whose deferment of tax payments will be expiring or have already expired.

“I have a list of PILOTS, Electrolux and some others,” said Burgess. “If I can get additional appraisers, we can go after that money. With additional staffing, we should bring in $4 million in the appraisers office. For the increase we are asking for, that would be an 84 percent ROI, return of investment.”

Turner admitted that the case for finding the additional money needed in the Assessor’s Office was a strong one.

“We are in this deficit situation because the tax rate was taken down from 4.09 to 4.05,” he said. “There was six, seven eight million in surplus some years, and we were wondering how to best use it. We should have kept the tax rate at 4.09, but now we are here.

“It is unsavory to a lot to people for the tax rate to increase,” Turner said. “But you are saying that if you can get more clerks and assessors on staff, you could bring in more revenue. I think it’s pretty safe to say that finding the money you need is a priority.”

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris submitted a budget of $1.3 billion for the next fiscal year, committing to not raising the property tax rate. He was present, but did not take part in Burgess’ discussions with commissioners.

Some push back came from Commissioner Brandon Morrison who asked Burgess for copies of his budget for the last two fiscal years. She was adamant that the tax rate not be raised to fund his request.

“You are asking for an increase in funding this fiscal year,” she said. “But Shelby County presently has the highest taxes in the state. I am in favor of holding the line on a tax rate increase. I would not support it.

“I just want to see the budget for your office over the past two years,” Morrison continued. “We should be looking at how the money has been spent and to make sure we are doing our best in managing our citizens’ dollars.”

Budget Chair Eddie Jones praised Burgess’ effort to get the Assessor’s Office back up to maximum operation.

“I just want to commend you for what you are doing to get it back up to speed,” said Jones. “We will be looking at the budget, trying to prioritize, move things around and make things happen as we prioritize. That’s why the budget is called a proposed budget. We will determine some priorities.

“You are asking an increase of $147,352 for additional staff and training. And the office will generate $4 million.” Jones added. “With everything given to us from the mayor’s proposed budget, your office definitely has priority.”

Burgess said he was pleased, for the most part, with how his presentation was received.

“I’m asking for $147,000, and I’m projecting that we will bring in $4 million,” he said. “That’s an 84 percent return. You can’t beat that. It’s a no-brainer, I feel confident that the commissioners understood that.”