For now, Memphis City Council members have more questions than consensus about which end is up on the proposed city budget for the fiscal year that is three weeks away.
Beyond the questions awaits a significant difference of opinion among council members about the general direction city finances should take with the new fiscal year and beyond.
The difference has been there since a majority of the seats on the 13-member council changed hands in the 2007 elections. Most of the council members elected in 2007 were returned to the council in the 2011 elections.
Of the six budget plans put forward this month by council members, they vary from council member Kemp Conrad’s plan to further privatize or outsource sanitation services to council member Janis Fullilove’s call to fund a Cooper-Young parking garage as well as city funding for a renovation of Southbrook Mall.
The plans are proposals for both sides of the city budget ledger – operating and capital improvements. Each is financed in different ways and paid for with different dedicated parts of the city property tax rate.
The difference of opinion translates into vote margins that are close enough that both sides have victories and take losses depending on the line item.
And then there are the distractions and events that have an impact even though they aren’t planned.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. was not present Tuesday, June 4, when the council budget committee got to how his administration would reset city finances in the wake of a state comptroller’s report critical of city financial practices.
Wharton prepared the weekend before for the presentation but wasn’t aware that the council budget committee session had been expanded and moved up to Tuesday morning instead of Tuesday afternoon.
As the budget committee started at 9 a.m., Wharton was at The Pyramid for an editorial board meeting with The Commercial Appeal.
“I’ll be big enough to say this. I have got to do a better job of communicating. There was no real mystique on this,” Wharton said the next day. “My staff was shocked when they really got right into it. … We were kind of let down because I put on a pretty good suit yesterday, combed my hair. We were going to go down and put out that budget proposal. But boom – plans changed.”
Council budget committee Chairman Jim Strickland has kept a tight rein on time limits in the budget presentations. Time is allotted for presentations by the administration and then for council members to ask and get answers to questions. A constant feature of the committee sessions has been a series of beeps as Strickland constantly set and reset a digital timer.
The tight time constraints have meant little time for the PowerPoint presentations that are a standard feature of budget season. And Strickland hasn’t been shy about telling division directors to get to the changes in their presentations and avoid the descriptions of everything the division does and its record of service over the years.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been distractions.
Council member Joe Brown has over his years on the council warned that layoffs of city employees and even cuts in their benefits would prompt an increase in crime. Last week, he argued the prospect of a county property tax hike and a city property tax hike together would do the same.
And he didn’t like the idea of increased city fees, as he turned his attention to Conrad who was seated nearby.
“Conrad, you’ll become a victim,” Brown said. “They’ll rob you because you look like you’ve got money. Whitehaven is overloaded with crime. Damn it, I wouldn’t want to live there.”
Council member Harold Collins, whose district includes Whitehaven, pointed out that Brown represents the super district that includes Whitehaven as well.
“They’re going to listen to me, Harold,” Brown replied. “They are not going to listen to you.”