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City manager expresses concern about school referendum timing

By Bill ShortFlag City Logo

Citing budget constraints, City Manager Thomas Christie expressed concern last week that this may not be the right time to create a municipal school district in Millington.
While reiterating that he would “love” to have such a district “under the right circumstances,” Christie said he does not believe those circumstances currently exist.
“One of the things that I think any municipality should consider seriously is whether it is prepared to financially support a school system,” he noted. “Based upon the condition of our own budget right now, and my concern about future budgets for Millington, I’m certainly not convinced that the city is prepared or is able to support a school system in the future.”
Christie made the comments during a May 20 special called meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen. That was shortly before the board passed an ordinance on final reading that re-schedules a municipal school district referendum on July 16.
Noting that he has received more information about the city’s “certified tax rate,” Christie said City Finance Director John Trusty is “fairly confident” that it will be $1.34. He said that rate is required for a “leveling effect,” just to keep exactly what the city had before.
Following the board’s direction, Christie said, he has worked even harder on the city budget for the 2014 fiscal year. Although it currently proposes “nine layoffs” and $95,000 in cost reductions through wage reversals and wage cuts, he is still projecting an $838,000 deficit.
If the board wants to address half of this deficit with the city’s fund balance and the other half with the property tax, Christie noted that it will require a 26-cent increase in the property tax rate. He said that would not include whatever additional tax “hit” Shelby County is proposing.
Calling this a “bare-bones” budget, the city manager said it does not include funding for street paving, economic development or capital road projects.
“We have absolutely nothing in the budget for grants,” he noted, “unless the board chose to actually use additional fund balance as the matching portion of any grants that we might receive.”
Christie said he wants Millington’s taxpayers to be assured that their city can “appropriately” fund its own school system. But he cannot be convinced of that by examining either the current budget or the one proposed for the 2014 fiscal year.
“What will change between now and next year?” he asked rhetorically. “We know that our revenues are not likely to show any substantial improvement. We know that our expenditures, our cost for goods and services, will go up.”
Noting that the board “may very well” be facing a similar budget situation next year and perhaps the year after that, Christie said he would prefer that the city get itself in “good financial condition,” and then seriously consider the commitment it would have to make toward a municipal school district.
But Alderman Mike Caruthers said he was not convinced that the city manager had made as many “cuts” in the proposed budget as he possibly could. When Christie noted that the city’s revenues have not equaled its expenditures “for some time,” Caruthers said the board hired him to “fix” that.
“I offered three fixes,” Christie recalled, “but the board didn’t like any of them. Those solutions required some very drastic actions that the board was unwilling to take. And that’s still a possibility, if the board wants to change its mind.”
Caruthers said much of the problem was not the “fixes,” but the way they were proposed. He contended that the board cannot do anything when the media, including area TV news reporters, are in the audience.
“It’s just not the way to do things,” he said.
“Well,” Christie responded, “I would hope that the board would be able to make its decisions with media scrutiny, if you want to be transparent.”
When Alderman Frankie Dakin said local control would be good for the city’s schools, Christie agreed.
“If you show me a community with a good school,” Dakin noted, “more than likely, its population is growing. If our population was growing, and we had higher population density, we wouldn’t be in the budget troubles we’re in now.”
Challenging Christie and the board to think about the future, Dakin said if a majority of Millington residents do not vote to create a municipal school district, the city is “done.”
“If you see what the unified school district’s already done to our schools, they’re being gutted,” he noted. “I would hate to see what they do in two or three years, while we’re waiting for us to get our fiscal house in order.”
Right now, Dakin said, the board’s first priority is to the students, the schools and the future growth of the community.
While agreeing with the alderman “100 percent,” Christie said his only concern is that, in order to prevent the “gutting,” the board must have the “financial wherewithal.”
Dakin said it is important to remember that the school budget is “largely separate” from the city coffers. He also acknowledged that a property tax rate increase and more cuts might be needed to create a municipal school district.
“But if our residents choose to make it a priority,” Dakin concluded, “then we have to as well.”

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