Facing a historically difficult budget year, Shelby County Board of Commissioners had an idea: they should entirely scrap the $1.4 billion consolidated budget submitted by the mayor and create one of their own.

In the midst of another episode of name-calling between Commissioner Edmond Ford Jr. and Mayor Lee Harris at last week’s budget committee meeting, we hope the suggestion is just another shot across the bow at the mayor’s administration.

Here’s hoping that’s the case, because it is a horrendous idea.

The commissioners have neither the staff nor the expertise to take on such a monumental project, but more to the point, the idea violates the spirit, if not the wording, of the Shelby County Charter.

Clarifying Roles

Back when county government was restructured by voters at referendum in 1974, it was to remove confusion about the specific powers of the executive and legislative branches, to set out clear cut processes and responsibilities, and to rationalize its structure.

At the time, the legislative branch was called the Shelby County Quarterly Court.  The administrative functions were divided between three elected officials that were then called commissioners.

It was an unwieldy way of doing business, and over the years, the chairman of the legislative body – then called the Quarterly Court – took over administrative responsibilities, clouding accountability roles while the administrative branch had a three-headed structure.   To clarify, the legislative body was named the Board of Commissioners and the administrative branch was to be headed by the county mayor.

In the end, Shelby County’s organizational chart largely mirrored the one for City of Memphis, excepting the minor county elected offices which should be dovetailed into the mayor’s administration.  The supporters for the new county org chart thought it would make it obvious that there is little reason to have two large governments with similar structures serving essentially the same constituents.

It was not to be.  Despite the logic of the argument, there was no groundswell of support for consolidating Memphis and Shelby County Governments.  It had already failed at referendum in 1962 and 1971.  Later, it would also go down to defeat in 2010.

Spelling Out Responsibilities

Back to the topic at hand: county government was restructured to end confusion and who was in charge of what.

County government’s own website puts it this way: “The role of court chairman grew in importance, particularly in areas of finance and accounting. As a result, executive authority in the county was split between the office of the chairman and the three commissioners.  Concerned about this fuzzy line of authority, county government drew up a bill presented to the Tennessee Legislature which clearly outlined responsibilities for county government.”

Last week’s comments about the commission taking over the role of preparing the county’s budget is precisely the blurring of the lines of authority that the writers of the new county charter were trying to eliminate.

Among the powers set out for the board of commissioners in the new county charter is “to adopt the county budget.”

Cooperation Anyone?

In keeping with the county charter, the mayor is called to submit a consolidated budget, which includes all the budgets of his administration plus the budgets of all other elected county officials, who must submit their budgets to him.

The Charter states: “The county mayor shall present the consolidated budget of the county to the board of county commissioners as set forth by resolution in order for the board of county commissioners to approve said budget as presented or modify and amend the same as may be deemed requisite in order to determine the amount of taxes necessary to be levied.”

In other words, the commissioners need to address the budget presented by the county mayor until, and if, the mayor agrees to use the 2020 fiscal year budget as the commission suggested in the budget meeting.

It would be much easier if the administration and the budget committee would meet and jointly agree on the way forward.  The commitment to collaborate and cooperate on the county’s budget in the midst of a pandemic would be a major step forward.

Time for Grownups

The personal insults have been bad enough but risking a legal fight about roles and responsibilities that costs taxpayers money is in two words, foolish and self-absorbed.

Right now, it would waste time that we don’t have, especially now that the federal government has attached so many strings to the use of the Covid-19 CARES funding.  The dream that federal funding will plug the hole left by local governments’ lost revenues has turned into a pipe dream, absent Congressional action to loosen up its uses.

Shelby County received $50 million, but it can only be used for costs directly related to the corona virus, not to replace declining revenues.

The board of commissioners are on a tight schedule if it is to approve a budget by the end of this fiscal year on June 30.  In a number of years in the past, the board approved a continuation budget, which amounted to one-twelfth of the current budget.

It was a way to buy time to reach agreement and defuse disagreements, but it is hardly the best way to handle the budget process.  What works best (not to mention what’s set out in the charter) is to have a new budget at the ready when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

$10M in a $1.4B Budget Is A Hole?

Perhaps, that could be a way to get everyone on the same page, and it would be preferable than more insults by the people elected to represent our best interests.

Meanwhile, the latest flare-up was about the board of commissioners turning down Mayor Lee Harris’ proposal for a $16.50 increase in the wheel tax on Monday.  The tax hike was to produce $10.5 million in new revenue, and without it, Mr. Harris said 144 county government jobs would be put in jeopardy.

The mayor called this blowing a hole in the county budget, but there’s probably tens of thousands of Shelby County citizens that would happily settle for such a hole.  In a $1.4 billion budget, it amounts to about 0.0075%.

More to the point, the administration could only muster three votes for the increase, which reprises the point from our last blog post: the Harris Administration appears to lack a clear strategy or plan for presenting its agenda and receiving commission support.

The fact that an important proposal like this wheel tax increase could only get three votes is a stunning indictment of the present communications.

Hacksaw Cuts To Budgets

As the commissioners look down the barrel at its looming deadline, Commissioner Brandon Morrison suggested that the county should institute 10-12% across-the-board cuts to the budget.  This hacksaw approach to budget preparation is a political favorite because it sounds fair by spreading the pain and it usually resonates with the public.

However, it’s a lazy way to arrive at a budget.  It sets no priorities for county funding but treats every department and service as equal when they are not.  Should health care have the same importance to commissioners as roads?  Could lower priority services be delayed or truncated in light of fewer revenues?  Where are the interests of the public best served with truly vital and essential services?

In addition, there are actually department heads who are conscientious about putting together  budgets with no fluff in them.  There are others who are masters of padding their budgets.

It would be informative if the commissioners analyzed a five year period to see which departments, elected offices, and agencies have money left over at the end of the year and also to determine how much of department, elected official, and agency budgets are spent in the last two months of the year to determine if administrators are spending down budgets before the beginning of a new fiscal year.

All in all, budget preparation isn’t an easy process and commissioners should resist the temptation for short cuts and easy answers.  After all, the county budget is much more than an accounting document.  More to the point, it is a moral document that represents the values of our community.


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