Sunday, June 20, 2004

The CA on the County Budget

Today's editorial by the Commercial Appeal is the paper's most direct address yet on the County budget situation and it's a weak, limp response. But what else would you expect? Let's take a look.
SHELBY COUNTY officials are right to avoid proposed budget cuts to the Sheriff's Department's uniform patrol, gangs and narcotics units that were recommended last month by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton.

Safety is one of the most important services provided by government. No one wants his or her neighborhood overrun by criminals. Uniform patrols, drug and gang unit deputies are crucial to maintaining a safe environment.
Strangely, the paper didn't criticise the Mayor for doing that. Had he run for office under that kind of promise, you can bet the paper would have been scathing and brutally dismissive of him. Why they treat him as a serious offer-maker and not a lunatic and high-stakes bluffer is for the ages to decide.
Wharton's $300 million "bare bones" budget was submitted to the County Commission after an earlier budget - which called for a property tax increase of up to 23-cent per $100 of assessed value - received a near universal thumbs-down.

Wharton's second budget suggested cuts to many county departments next year, including an almost one-third reduction in the number of deputies patrolling roads in unincorporated Shelby County. He said he submitted a balanced budget that maintains services required by state law.
I'm picking up a copy of the County's budget tomorrow and will scour it to see what recipients of funding remain, even after the cuts. Prepare to be surprised, I'm sure.

Calling Wharton's revised budget "bare bones" is an insult to Shelby Countians. How about: lunatic, insulting, doomsday, scare-tactic? He took a cowardly request from the County Commission ("Save our asses by not proposing anything that requires a property tax raise.") and threw it back in their faces, with a dare to pass it. Rather than throw it right back at him, they elected to simply rework it. They had to go back and request a detail of his cuts (which should tell you something about the Mayor's proposal right there), then wait for it, putting them well behind in doing their job.

Once the Commission started work and word of their proposed cuts and restoration of Wharton's cuts got out, the Mayor launched a full-on attack on what they tried to make of his mess. Sheriff Luttrell was right behind him, shouting "lawsuit!" The foolish cowards at the Commission got themselves here, but they've been out-maneuvered by Wharton and Luttrell ever since.
Sheriff Mark Luttrell reeled at the idea. The 230-mile area his department polices is bursting with new subdivisions, businesses and crime. To remove officers from these areas would be pure folly.

"We will become a reactive force instead of proactive," Luttrell said. "We'll just go out and clean up the mess rather than try to prevent it. We actually need more patrol officers, rather than fewer."
Luttrell didn't "reel" until the Commission reacted, don't forget that. And, as a Second Amendment supporter, I have to ask why he hasn't mentioned citizens learning how to defend themselves and their neighborhoods as a matter of course?
Wharton said he submitted the revised budget with great reluctance. He does not support cuts to law enforcement programs that would put citizens in harm's way, but he correctly noted the county must find alternative funding sources.

"We are simply flat against the wall, faced with cutting services we consider critical or with finding new sources of revenue other than the property tax," Wharton said in a guest column in the June 13 Viewpoint pages. "This reality serves as a warning that we must move away from our over-reliance on the property tax."
You'll notice that no one in the local media, except yours truly, seems to be questioning those cuts, as to whether they are the only ones that can be made. No one has gone in and looked at what survives the cuts, no one.

Has anyone done a study to see what the effect is on the property tax when formerly rural land is converted to residential and commercial use? My guess is that property tax revenues rise as a result. In a booming market like East Shelby County we should be seeing massive amounts of increasing revenue, yes?

This whole thing, I'm beginning to believe, is a charade to make the public more amenable to those "new sources of revenue" Wharton is talking about. I don't doubt Wharton's personal integrity, though as someone who has been long-active in politics you have to assume he's made some concessions and accomodations along the way. We must also never forget that Wharton is, by training, career and avocation, a lawyer. That absolutely affects and influences the way he approaches and handles things. I believe it has affected his approach to how we are going to get new and increased taxes sometime this year.

By scaring the public as he has, by launching a hullabaloo completely unncecsary to the process of securing spending and funding priorities, we see that lawyerly approach in action. He could have simply explained what he needed and why. It would have been a hard sell, because few believe that government isn't wasteful and that some pet projects and spendings are still being retained in the new "bare bones" budget. He chose not to do that, but to take the Sundquist/Naifeh "scare the voters" route to passage of new taxes. It's shameful. Doubly shameful is that local news and newspapers don't tell you this.
Fortunately, the County Commission's budget committee last week heard a compromise that would preserve key funding to the Sheriff's Department while regrettably reducing as much as $2 million from the Regional Medical Center at Memphis and $1 million from libraries. The plan also proposes closing the Shelby County Show Place Arena and the county rifle range. But, unfortunately, this compromise may be the most logical way to avoid a property tax increase.
Carefully worded to make it sound like the proposal was the Mayor's and not the work of the Commission's staff. And after a long series last year about the importance of the Med to our community, requesting additional funding from the County and State -- even from Mississippi and Arkansas! -- now the paper calls the loss of millions merely "regrettable" and "unfortunate." How noble of them! How stiff of lip and manly of demeanor!
The plan outlined by Jim Huntzicker, county director of administration and finance, would divert $7 million from repayment of the county's $1.6 billion future debt service to pay for debt costs this year, freeing up tax money for other crucial services.

Huntzicker said that while the county's debt would increase if the funds were used to balance the budget, he felt the money could be recouped from other sources, such as real estate taxes or transfer fees.
Go to the Shelby County site and look at the Mayor's "Revised Budget Proposal." The original budget had a line item that was called "unrealised revenue." This was, when you read the detail, simply a made-up way of picking up the last slack they wouldn't cut! It was hoped-for but not actual revenue to come from sources the County either hadn't raised taxes for yet, or hadn't gotten approval from some legislative body to levy yet! It was yet another sham.

Wharton removed that item in his revised budget to make the shortfall look worse, but now Huntzicker is putting it back hoping, I'm sure, to prod some action along that front. Aren't you glad the watchdogs of the media pointed all this out for you?
The Sheriff's Department still would take a $4 million hit, but it is hoped in areas that would have less public impact.

Huntzicker said cuts to The Med would be softened by the recent infusion of $10.2 million from the state.
The State gave the Med money, more than expected, so we'll adjust our contributions accordingly -- downward. Remember this little shell game, because you will see it used by the State with lottery funds and the Education budget in a few years. This is merely the local version.
The compromise budget also would maintain the mosquito and rat control programs, pretrial services and half the funding for the crime victims' center. Those programs deserve as much support as possible.

In an effort to control costs, Huntzicker said the county could hasten the sale of some county buildings, and he urged commissioners to approve a two-year budget.
These "solutions" Huntzicker is talking about are one-time-only. They do not address revenue or spending, much in the same way spending the tobacco settlement money on State budget shortfalls several years back didn't address the problems there. Folks just don't learn and your watchdogs don't, either.

Notice how these programs "deserve as much support as possible" where the Med was "regrettable" and "unfortunate." Would the Commercial Appeal also care to venture their opinions on the constitutionality of them? That would be instructive.
The budget compromise may be the best option to avoid a significant property tax increase next year. But in case someone revisits the plan to cut funds from the Sheriff's Department's uniform patrol, it should be noted that more people, traffic and crime in the county translates into a need for more and not fewer patrol cars. Funding for these crucial services should remain intact.
Since when does the Commercial Appeal care about our taxes? They've backed every initiative that has cost taxpayers for years, including the Pyramid and the FedEx Forums.

What we're not hearing is the paper's own thoughts on what should be done. They have only commented on the work of others, in a wishy-washy way. They need to go ahead and suggest what they think is important and what should be done. That hasn't happened yet. I'm not betting it will happen at all.

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