Commissioners vie for lower taxes

The future of a proposed Shelby County tax rate and its already approved budget should become clearer during meetings this week. bartlett express web

The county commissioners’ budget and finance committee was scheduled to meet Wednesday. It’s the first time the committee will have come together as a group since the board as a whole struck down July 8 a proposed $0.36 tax-rate increase. Although some of the commissioners have been working on crunching the numbers since then, what comes out of these meetings likely will be the next proposal that goes before the board.

“We’re all divided right now,” said commissioner Wyatt Bunker. “It depends on where the center falls.”

Bunker, who voted against the rate increase and who is a member of the budget and finance committee, said he believes the county should maintain its 2012-2013 fiscal year rate for 2013-2014. That means keeping the rate at $4.02 instead of the proposed $4.38 that recently failed. He also said that he believes that can be done without cutting into public services.

“These are old-timey political tactics,” said Bunker of the concerns regarding cuts to public safety and public health that have been raised by county Mayor Mark Luttrell Jr. and some of the commissioners. “What they’re saying is a bare-bones budget isn’t always bare-bones. I’m not buying into it.”

Terry Roland, who also sits on the budget and finance committee and also voted against the increase, said he agrees.

“I can understand being revenue neutral,” said Roland, who was referring to a proposed certified tax rate increase of $0.30. “We might have to go up on the rate a little. But it’s so easy to raise taxes and not make cuts.”

The commissioners are finding themselves in this discussion during an odd year for the tax roles. Property assessment values dropped in January for the first time in recent memory. To get the same value from property taxes as the county received in the last fiscal year, the property tax rate would have to increase to the certified rate.

It’s also the first year for the unified Shelby County Schools district. The district, which approved its budget this spring, had a more than $30 million deficit they asked the county to fund. The county, in its $374 million budget approved June 1, gave the district $20 million.

But Roland and Bunker both have said that the county can make a lot of additional cuts, including taking that $20 million to the district off the table.

“I think we should give the school district what we gave them last year,” said Roland.

Roland also said that the mayor’s office and divorce referees are areas where he believes the county can make cuts, while Bunker said the county’s Equal Opportunity Commission and pension plans are places to start.

But Bunker also said that the role of the commissioners is to tell county executives what they can afford, not to suggest where the county can make cuts.

“We’re part-time legislators,” he said. “We don’t have the benefit of a full financial staff to get the details of millions of dollars in the budget.”