No Cuts, No Layoffs - A Moral 2020 Budget for Shelby County

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The long-term failure to adequately fund our County government is now compounded by this unprecedented crisis. We cannot balance the budget on the backs of hard working public servants and the community members they serve. We must correct the past mistakes which have underfunded our County, and expand Shelby County's revenue base now.

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To Shelby County Mayor and Shelby County Commissioners,

On behalf of the dozens of congregations, countless parents and students, thousands of community members and over 40,000 union members, we urge County Leaders to place the needs of working families, students and public servants at the center of the government’s response to COVID-19. Working people need a fully funded Shelby County government.

This virus has put an unexpected strain on the County budget. We need solutions that restore the budget fairly. We strongly oppose attempts to recoup the shortfall on the backs of the dedicated employees of county government or residents who rely on the services they provide. We urge the Mayor and the County Commission to ensure this does not happen, by raising new revenue. Shelby County government has been forced to operate on austere revenue for too long. Now is the time to begin to change that.

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To the Shelby County Commissioners,

We support a property tax adjustment, though we also approve of the Mayors’ Vehicle Registration Fee increase. A tax adjustment will create additional funds for education and ease pressure on the County’s general fund at a time of strained resources, avoiding those untenable layoffs or cuts. The property tax rate was artificially lowered in 2017 to an unsustainable level, and our county has suffered since then with lack of investments to vital parts of our community.

The Vehicle Registration Fee has not been raised in close to 20 years. While keeping pace with the rate of inflation would anticipate it being $22 more, we support an increase of $16.50.

While, based on the mayor’s proposed budget, this further reduces the portion of property tax dollars going to education, it maintains the current level of education funding and assists in providing additional CIP funds for school facilities. We support the pennies on the tax dollar returning to education when County revenue recovers with additional education funds going to targeted initiatives that benefit our students with the greatest need.

If County Commissioners are able to balance the budget with no layoffs and no cuts to service, we still support the increase in revenue. Investments in transit through Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) and targeted education support are just two areas where we know additional funds are needed and where additional revenue could be applied for the greater benefit of Shelby County and its citizens. With growing concern about the resilience of our voting system amid a pandemic, our community also needs strong County investment absentee voting, from public education about how it works to sufficient staffing and training to be sure all mail-in absentee ballots are properly counted.

Some protest property tax increases on behalf of low-income County residents. However, the most vulnerable people in our County are not homeowners, and they will not pay a dime of a property tax adjustment. It is low income families who rely on our public services, like the Health Department, public schools and transit, and cuts that affect those services hit them the hardest. Because descrimination in the private sector is so powerful, public jobs like those on the chopping block are some of the most important stepping stones into the middle class for families of Color - threatening the benefits and jobs of these public servants is a move against the financial stability of Black and Brown communities. The median home value in Shelby County is $86,000. An $.08 cent property tax adjustment would mean half our County residents would see their annual property taxes increase by $17.50 or less, that is an easy choice, to keep our County services strong.

There is no way around the fact our County needs to expand its base of revenue. Failing this could mean cutting as many as 150 jobs, from an already skeleton staff, or slashing important benefits like parental leave. It could mean our Health Department and Division of Community Services will be unable to meet the current and potential resurgent demands of addressing COVID-19 in our community. It definitely means that the County continues to operate at a deficit to support those in our community with the greatest needs. These effects will ripple through the economy and send a message that public servants and residents are expendable.

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To Mayor Lee Harris

We consider it understood that when new revenues are generated through a registration fee or property tax increase, there will be no layoffs at Shelby County. Further, all surplus revenues freed by this fee will be directed to MATA as soon as organic revenue rebounds, in accord with the needs of County residents for safe reliable public transit. Last, none of these additional funds will be diverted to corporate tax-breaks or expanded executive payroll.

We urge you, Mayor, to signal your support for a property tax adjustment, and to make a public commitment to these three things.

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For too long, public revenue has been held back by a lack of political will to tax more fairly in “America’s Distribution Center.” Due to reduced opportunities for investments, our government budgets have not lived up to the ideal that they will be moral budgets that support and benefit all our residents equitably.

The Vehicle Registration Fee is a stopgap measure that will not address the long-term string of budget crises that set the stage for our current deficit. To address the underlying problems, Shelby County must readjust the property tax level to a rate commensurate with the growing challenges faced by our children, working families, and communities.

Next year you will have the rare opportunity to reassess the property taxes in the county. We, the undersigned working people - congregants, community members, parents, students, educators, and union members - urge you to significantly raise them. In the dark hour of this crisis let’s imagine together a Shelby County, responsibly and sufficiently funded, able to confront the injustice of pandemics and poverty.