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County Mayor’s ‘Wheel Tax’ budget a nonstarter for commissioners, constituents

 by Commissioners Eddie S. Jones Jr. and Edmund Ford Jr. —

In April, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris proposed a budget that included an increase in the despised wheel tax and lots of spending, such as $24 million in operations and $64 million to build one school that has not been fully vetted by community leaders or the school board.  During the budget hearings, County Commissioners have rejected these expenses by the Administration.

Eddie S. Jones Jr. represents District 11 on the Shelby County Board of Commissioners. (Courtesy photo)

At the same time, many Commissioners say they want to pass a budget that has no property tax increase, no wheel tax increase, and no adverse effect on services.  Additionally, these same legislators are working diligently to increase services that have been distressed by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Let’s place this in clear perspective.

The proposed budget by Mayor Harris had several questionable items. First, it included a $16.50 increase in the wheel tax.  Many of us remember that this tax was supposed to be temporary. Truth is, it still exists and has doubled from $25 to $50.

The County Mayor is asking for an additional 33 percent increase of the wheel tax to balance his budget to offset the $7.6 million he is cutting from Shelby County Schools. The budget he presented in April lowers the Education Fund by 4 cents, where each penny equals approximately $1.9 million, thus the math: 4 X $1.9 million = $7.6 million.

However, his wheel tax budget generates more than the $7.6 million to make up the difference. In fact, it would raise between $10.5 million and $14 million. If the wheel tax is yielding more revenue than what is needed, a reasonable person could ask where the excess money is going?  Is it going to increase school maintenance of effort? Is it going to pet projects?  Is this going to be a slush fund for the County Mayor?

Shelby County Commissioner Edmund Ford Jr. represent District 9. (Courtesy photo)

We personally asked these questions and still have not received a real answer.  In fact, a couple of Commissioners were verbally attacked for inquiring about such things. Taxpayers deserve to know where the extra cash is going to be spent, and we were asking for them.

The wheel tax, to several Shelby Countians, has been the most unpopular and untrusted tax for the last three decades. For Mayor Harris to balance his proposed budget on the “hope” that a raise of the wheel tax by a supermajority (nine votes) of the County Commission is presumptuous at best. Last month, the County Commission, on a 10-3 vote, voted against such increase.

This left Commissioners to perform a complete reset of the entire budget.  Taking the same approach as the City of Memphis, which was able to successfully fill an $81-million gap in their operating budget due to projected shortfalls due to the pandemic, the Commission decided to use the practical approach of working with the numbers from our current budget, eliminating the one-time expenditures, comparing line items in the proposed budget, and making decisions accordingly.

Most changes that passed in committee used figures from Mayor Harris’ FY2021 budget book.  He cries that some Commissioners are “targeting” his office with cuts, which is impractical.  Follow this simple exercise.  You project to spend $5,000 for food for 2021.  You spend $7,000 in 2020.  If we compare the food line item for 2020 and 2021, one can change that line by reducing it by $2,000.  That is not a cut as the County Mayor wants you to believe.  It is an adjustment, using his own numbers. You cannot have it both ways.

It appears that this Mayor is not getting his way, so his only recourse is a threat to fire people and to publicize layoffs recklessly to the media and others.  In the time of pandemic and protest, no elected official should be playing games with people’s lives to get misleading sound bytes.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has proposed a budget that is $8 million less than his current budget, has filled an $81-million gap, and has pledged no layoffs in this critical time.  Why is Lee Harris doing the complete opposite? It is another question to add to the other ones that have not been answered.

NOTE: After another lengthy session on Wednesday (June 3), the Shelby County Board of Commissioners next meets on Monday at noon in pursuit of a budget agreement.

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