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State Comptroller’s audit of Halbert reveals about $3M shortfall for roads, school projects

Tennessee State Comptroller Jason Mumpower effectively rubber-stamped a new set of figures from a recent audit of the Shelby County Clerk’s Office that reflects $8.7 million in revenue from a $25 wheel tax approved last year, on Tuesday, March 12.

With seven months on the books, the revised numbers from November to February show the tax is on pace to fall short of its $17 million projection. Drawing between $1.1 million and $1.3 million a month on average with four months left in the fiscal year, the levy will likely fall around $3 million short.

The state’s chief accountant sent a “boots-on-the-ground” team of auditors to Memphis last week after Shelby County Trustee Regina Newman pulled inaccurate revenue reports offered by Shelby County Clerk Wanda Halbert.  Some of the reports had been re-posted.

“I have no confidence in the Clerk’s Office to manage its affairs without outside intervention,”  Mumford said at the time.

Newman released the updated totals Tuesday.

The corrected numbers come as Mayor Lee Harris prepares to submit his FY2025 budget in May. In addition to muddling current budget projections, the errant math further complicated Shelby County’s debt service obligations. The fiscal year begins July 1.

Passed in June, the wheel tax is paid by owners when they purchase a new vehicle, or when they renew their car tag. After it’s paid to the clerk’s office, it goes into an administration account. It went into effect in July.

That month, Halbert’s office collected $4,275 from the tax.

The $25 number was a comedown from a $50 levy Harris sought to fund the $700 million rebuild of the Regional One Health campus. Shelby County Commissioners rejected the stronger option that was projected to bring in $34 million per year.  The money will also finance the construction of high schools in Cordova and Frayser. 

During a commission Budget & Finance Committee meeting last week, it was revealed the latter two are already over budget. Furthermore, cost estimates for the original plans have doubled.

The situation was described by Memphis-Shelby County Schools chief strategic planning and operation advisor as a “worst-case scenario.”

Halbert was slated to appear at the March 6 meeting – while the audit was progressing –  but failed to appear. Instead, she requested a one-month extension.

While the audit has concluded, the scrutiny into Halbert’s job performance continues. A special prosecutor appointed by Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft  is currently investigating if Halbert’s ouster is warranted. Hamilton County District Attorney General Coty Wamp was appointed to lead the inquiry after Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy recused himself.

The commission’s ire with Halbert dates back to the COVID-19 pandemic, after a months-long backlog of thousands of vehicle tags and other controversies occurred during her first term. After being reelected, she attracted Mumpower’s attention when she took an impromptu vacation to Jamaica while her office was digging out of its hole. The jaunt led to a temporary closure.

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