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Sales Tax Referendum Enflames Tensions Between Memphis And Its Suburbs

Early voting is underway and residents in Memphis and the unincorporated county are voting on a half-cent sales tax increase.

Outside the early voting location at the Agricenter, Nancy Ream said she and her husband voted for the sales tax increase, “my understanding is that it is supposed to go for Pre-K money and this is a community that really does need money for Pre-K, for kids under five. We need to get those kids in school as fast as possible.”

If it passes countywide, the tax increase will generate about $60 million. Half of that money will go back to the cities and towns it was collected in—a computer bought in Memphis will generate money for Memphis, a car bought in Bartlett will generate money for Bartlett. The other half, about $30 million, will go towards education.

It’s likely that much of that money will fund a plan for the merged Memphis and Shelby County School system which expands Pre-Kindergarten, but the school board hasn’t voted on that plan. Tom Ream said he is uneasy funding a school district without a firm roadmap in place, “The school board needs to declare themselves on one that, I think, and if they don’t they’ll be some dissatisfaction.”

There is already some dissatisfaction over this sales-tax referendum in the six municipalities outside of Memphis. No one in the suburbs gets to vote. That’s because the suburbs already voted on a half-cent sales tax increase when they chose to open their own school districts back in August. They don’t get to vote again.

If it passes, the countywide referendum will trump the suburbs’ local sales tax referendums and reduce the amount of money in coffers in four of the suburbs: Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, and Millington.

“The fact that we don’t get to vote makes it suspicious,” said Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, “because our citizens might not vote for this countywide, because it wouldn’t be beneficial to them.”

A countywide sales tax increase would up the funds in Lakeland and Arlington which don’t make much money in sales tax and would get more money per student from the county commission, but Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman still doesn’t want it to pass, “I don’t under these circumstances,” Wissman said. “I just think it is very misleading to let people vote on one thing, and then turn around and not let them vote on something else, as far as the sales tax. You know we voted on it here locally to support us here locally, and now you are just kind of throwing that into the big pot that we would automatically assume that we approve it countywide.”

There was vociferous opposition on the county commission to putting this measure on the ballot and most of it came from suburban commissioners, but they got out voted, and that’s how Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald thinks a merged school board would behave, too.

“That’s exactly what it’s going to be like, when you look at the county commission and the way it’s divided, and the way the votes are going,” McDonald said. “I think that you are going to have a majority of those people who represent the City of Memphis who have different needs than the suburban communities, have different goals [and] have different watermarks.”

“If in fact we have one school system for all of Shelby County, the school board for that school system will be mostly from Memphis. That doesn’t mean the suburbs won’t have any influence,” said Shelby County Commission Chairman Mike Ritz. “It’s not inaccurate to say they would be in a minority, but I don’t think that means the sky is falling.”

Ritz lobbied hard to get the half-cent sales tax increase on the ballot over suburban objections because he became convinced that the merged Memphis and Shelby County School system would need the money. Ritz sat in on a few meetings of the commission charged with planning the merger, “It became clear to me that there was sort of a consensus budget shortfall of about $57 million to $60 million, if the school board made a bunch of tough decisions,” Ritz said. “That shortfall would be even larger if they didn’t make some tough decisions like closing some schools, privatizing bus drivers in the county and maintenance in the city.”

Back at the Agricenter early voting location, Wilbur Warner was not swayed by the argument that the money was needed for schools, but he voted for the sales tax increase anyway, “I think it [the sales tax] is already too high, but … versus raising my property tax?” Warner said, “So I voted for it.”

I love living in Memphis, but I'm not from the city. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I spent many hours at a highly tender age listening to NPR as my parents crisscrossed that city in their car, running errands. I don't amuse myself by musing about the purity of destiny, but I have seriously wondered how different my life would be if my parents preferred classic rock instead of Car Talk.
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