The issue that promises or threatens to dominate 2014 at City Hall is the one that just about everyone in city government would rather see out of the spotlight.
In a word, it’s money.
City Hall’s money problem is not one that historically gets a lot of the spotlight for very long.
There is no new civic monument for public use that is at the end of the process for elected leaders to point to as they run for re-election or higher office.
Handle it properly and it disappears from view because no news is good news when it comes to city finances. And until you handle it properly, it is a basic financial problem that every one with bills and taxes to pay can react to at its basic bottom line, even if it is on a scale of hundreds of millions of dollars.
As our cover story notes, there is no good answer to “How much?” But that is just the first question we have to ask of those we’ve elected. These days, how much is followed by the terms. And what is the relationship of righting the city’s financial ship with the duties and services city government should and must provide?
The answer to the relationship is that solving the city’s long-term financial problems is the foundation for everything that follows. City Hall has to get that right. And it can’t while it’s pursuing an economic development strategy that is all window dressing.
Even with an unfunded pension liability estimated at more than $700 million by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., Wharton is still talking of the city buying AutoZone Park on terms still to be settled.
His first numbers on the ballpark deal crumbled after a few questions. So, now new numbers are on the way.
The same day in May that the administration went to the council with its first public discussion of the problems Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson had with the city’s finances was also the time the administration chose to start talking about a renovation of the old police building.
No one appears to care enough whether the numbers are accurate on the front end. It’s like the concept is just get the money committed any way possible and worry about how to meet the commitment later – 20 to 30 years down the road when someone else is in office.
This is the illusion of economic development – a kind of carnival sideshow selling any kind of movement for the sake of movement.
And our priorities including real and sustainable economic development – the things we have to do and have to do right – suffer as a result.
The way out of our financial problems is not a challenge that competes with growing the city economically. Meeting the challenge sets a solid foundation for future economic development that represents real growth.