Shelby Co. Commissioners fail to resolve budget shortfall at second in-person meeting amid pandemic

Shelby Co. Commissioners fail to resolve budget shortfall at second in-person meeting amid pandemic

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Ongoing disagreements over the status of Shelby County’s budget for the next fiscal year were not resolved Wednesday at a second in-person county budget session.

Shelby County Commission Chair Mark Billingsley convened the body Wednesday morning to the Grand Ballroom at the Peabody for a special called meeting at 8:30 a.m. to begin reconciling the budget.

Reconciling a budget for any governmental body is a monumental task, even in a regular year. But given the COVID-19 pandemic, this is no ordinary year.

Negotiations between members of Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris' administration and some commissioners have been testy in recent weeks, with sparring between both sides.

All sides agree that cuts must be made, but that's the only area of agreement. Issues about how much to cut, where it should come from, and even the amount of the shortfall differ depending on who you ask.

No decision made on Shelby County budget

The administration of Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris proposed a $1.4 billion budget in late April which included a hike to the wheel tax and $13 million in cuts.

But commissioners shot down the wheel tax hike and signaled they would not support the mayor's budget as proposed, instead wanting to craft their own plan. Harris said the commission's plan imposes funding cuts on a variety of county programs.

“It already includes some level of cuts, but cuts that we thought were manageable,” said Harris of his proposal. “At this point, they are not cutting the bone but the marrow. And so, we have to lift the community’s concerns.”

Some commissioners have said they do not want to lay off county employees, but Chair Mark Billingsley said it still is not completely off the table.

“For me, it’s hard to believe that a cut won’t negatively impact staff. It’s something that I’ve said we were trying to look at for quite a while now, for a couple of months, and trying to find a humane way to balance a budget,” said Billingsley. “Typically cuts mean your staff, and so I would hate to make a promise that these cuts won’t lend to some people not being hired or them being laid off.”

Wednesday commissioners did put into motion the creation of a grant fund to hand out nearly $50 million in federal funds the county acquired to pay for COVID-19 related expenses. Commissioners also agreed to pay 2,490 county front-line employees a one-time $500 hazard pay stipend by December.

By mid-afternoon Wednesday, commissioners started proposing cuts to the budget. The mayor's administration said by close of the meeting Wednesday, there appeared to be a $14.6 million shortfall that remained, not inclusive of a shortfall in the debt service fund.

The body said they will hopefully resolve the budget at a special meeting on June 3.

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