People attend a press conference in front of the Clifford Davis-Odell Horton Federal Building on Monday. Members of the Moral Budget Coalition were asking Shelby County commissioners to set money aside toward a moral budget. Photo by Carrington J. Tatum for MLK50

A coalition of organizations pressing for funding changes in city and county budgets to center vulnerable people won a couple of small victories during a county board meeting Monday evening, though most of their demands were not met. 

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners approved a tax rate of $3.46 for every $100 of a property’s assessed value, a penny above the recertified rate, which had been lowered from $4.05 after a countywide reappraisal. The board must approve the new rate at another hearing before it can become final.

The Memphis and Shelby County Moral Budget Coalition had requested that the county maintain the current property tax rate of $4.05 and use the revenue generated for public education, public transportation, affordable housing, mental health services, support for people experiencing homelessness, and other efforts to support workers and young people.

Commissioners did address two of the coalition’s concerns. With some last amendments to the budget, commissioners allocated $1.3 million for the Memphis Area Transit Authority. The moral budget requests $10 million from the county and $20 million from the city for a total investment of $30 million in the county’s transportation infrastructure.

Also, the extra penny above the recertified tax rate is dedicated to youth and adult mental health services and translates to almost $2.3 million in revenue. The moral budget asks for a $1.5 million investment from the county.

Organizations participating in the coalition include Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope, Restaurant Workers United and Stand for Children.

Cardell Orrin, executive director of Stand for Children, said Tuesday that he has mixed feelings of frustration and hopefulness regarding the commissioners’ decisions.

“The small amount that was put into the budget for MATA was another good win in terms of moderate, gradual steps forward for our public transportation,” Orrin said. “I think this will result in a real win for the young people in our community in terms of access to mental health, education and destigmatization of mental health that we didn’t have a path toward before.”

“I think this will result in a real win for the young people in our community in terms of access to mental health, education and destigmatization of mental health that we didn’t have a path toward before.”

Cardell Orrin, executive director of Stand for Children

The coalition first approached city and county elected officials regarding their “moral budget” last month, asserting it could be supported by reallocating local funds and through American Rescue Plan Act dollars. Some commissioners, however, said it was too late in the budgeting process.

Last week, board members added time at the end of committee meetings to allow presentations from the coalition. 

“My feelings about this and where we are in the budget are conflicted because we’ve spent so much time in these meetings and we’re only just doing this today,” Commissioner Tami Sawyer said last week. “One of the things I hope is, regardless of what comes out here, with this conversation, this budget season, that we get ahead of the game to talk about what a moral budget actually looks like for next fiscal year as well.”

Monday, Sawyer proposed an amendment to set the tax rate to $3.69 to address the concerns of the coalition, but commissioners rejected the change in a 4-7 vote.

Commissioners Turner, Sawyer, Michael Whaley and Reginald Milton voted in favor of the amendment. Commissioners Mark Billingsley, Mick Wright, Willie Brooks Jr., David Bradford, Edmund Ford Jr., Amber Mills, and Brandon Morrison voted against it, while commissioners Mickell Lowrey and Eddie Jones abstained.

Earlier Monday, the coalition joined the Tennessee Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival in front of the Clifford Davis-Odell Horton Federal Building for a press conference. They called on Congress to overhaul economic policies in support of justice for poor people, which they call a “Third Reconstruction.”

The state PPC chapter organized the press conference in coordination with chapters across the country to seek support for House Resolution 438. The resolution is meant to outline the systemic roots and effects of poverty to lawmakers and demand changes in policies, said the Rev. Gordon Myers, a tri-chair of the Tennessee PPC.

“Somebody is hurting our brothers and sisters, and it’s gone on far too long,” Myers said. “Poverty is a result of bad policy, bad policies that benefit not the peace, safety and happiness of everyone but intentionally, deliberately and systematically perpetuates interlocking injustices that enable poverty to exist.”

The Memphis City Council has delayed finalizing its budget until their June 15 meeting.

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at carrington.tatum@mlk50.com