The Memphis City Council’s budget committee approved the largest budget for any single city division Tuesday, May 7.
But the committee debate before the vote set the stage for what is expected to be more discussion about how much the Memphis Police Department needs to protect and serve.
Police Director Toney Armstrong mounted a firm defense of all of the items in his department’s $237.5 million budget proposal. It is part of a total $622.5 million proposal for all of city government submitted to the council last month by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.
Council member Lee Harris pressed Tuesday to cut a $2 million legal budget from the police proposal.
Armstrong countered that he is expecting lawsuits particularly over promotions testing.
The amendment failed.
“I thought at one point this council was told legal issues were being moved to the legal division,” council member Wanda Halbert said during the discussion.
“They are being moved back,” budget committee chairman Jim Strickland said.
The new conditions and shifting dollar figures that are in one section of the budget one fiscal year and in another the next fiscal year is a regular feature of the City Hall budget season no matter who is mayor or who is on the council.
But current council members have watched both factors closely over several budget seasons.
The result is council members are likely to do what they have done in recent years, float their own budget proposals. The council proposals are sometimes complete substitutes for the administration’s budget plan. Or they substitute for different parts of Wharton’s budget proposal toward a different bottom line in terms of revenues, expenditures and the city property tax rate.
Near the end of the morning budget committee session that stretched into Tuesday afternoon, council member Shea Flinn estimated that with every division budget approved to that point, the city property tax rate would go from the current $3.11 to $3.61.
Wharton is proposing a 28-cent property tax hike that would take the rate to $3.39. In the process, it will restore $15 million in property tax revenue lost in the 2013 property reappraisal for tax purposes and handle $10 million more in annual debt service due in the new fiscal year from a restructuring of the city’s debt.
Wharton’s “continuation” budget also proposes a 2.3 percent pay raise for all city employees that would take effect in January, halfway through the fiscal year.
A City Council impasse committee last week approved a 4.6 percent pay raise for police in an action that is expected to go to the full council later this month or next.
The council budget wrap-up sessions are also still ahead on May 30.
Council member Harold Collins questioned whether Armstrong can follow through on plans to test and promote two groups of police officers in the fiscal year.
“In my opinion, you are going to have to choose one,” Collins said.
“I’ve made it clear we need to have the tests done in one year,” Armstrong said. “There is an agreement that the tests will be shorter.”
The council later heard Parks and Neighborhoods division director Janet Hooks make a PowerPoint pitch complete with results of an online survey for $2.9 million in additional funding to add 47 employees to the Memphis Public Library and Information Center and increase the library collections budget to $2 million from less than $1 million.
“Have y’all shown this to the Police Department?” Collins asked Hooks and others making the pitch.
“You must be reading my mind,” Harris replied.
“Their budget went up $40 million,” Collins continued, referring to the increase in city funding for the MPD since 2008. “Today, the director sat in that chair and said if we cut $2 million out of his budget, he won’t be able to do what he’s supposed to do.”
Collins said there is a correlation between spending more to keep libraries open longer than the reduced library hours that have been the norm for years, and crime.
“To me it’s about who and what kind of community we want to be in,” Collins added. “We can be in a lock-them-up, throw-away-the-key community, but we did what we did and there’s not enough money at this table to fund that. I truly believe that. So every time somebody gets their lawnmower stolen, we’ve got to throw some more police on the street. To me it’s ridiculous.”
Council member Joe Brown, however, argued for full funding of police and libraries.
“If we’ve got to have a tax increase so be it,” Brown said. “I don’t want anybody else to tell me anything about taxes. … Cargill – I’m sure they’ll give you half a million dollars. Find you some rich folks with money. It’ll work.”