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VOL. 122 | NO. 87 | Friday, May 11, 2007

City Budget an Issue in Mayor's Race

By Andy Meek

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HOT SEAT: Mayoral candidate Herman Morris Jr. staged a press conference in front of City Hall this week during which he called for a halt on choosing a new head of MLGW until after the October election. -- Photos By Andy Meek

More than half a century ago, the prominent civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph sent a letter challenging one of Memphis' most legendary political figures to a debate on race relations.

Randolph, founder of the country's first black labor union, had been sidelined in a previous attempt to speak at a gathering in Memphis by former mayor Edward Hull "E.H." Crump's political organization. So in an open letter to Crump, Randolph slammed him as "a symbol of Southern fascism" and a "menace and danger to American democracy."

And even while Adolph Hitler was busy setting Europe aflame during World War II, Randolph added that when the former mayor kept him from speaking in Memphis, he had effectively "out-Hitlered Hitler."

That episode is recounted in Memphis library archivist G. Wayne Dowdy's 2006 book "Mayor Crump Don't Like It: Machine Politics in Memphis." At the least, it shows that opponents of past Memphis mayors have employed considerable skill in political knife fights - and in a way that denouncing current mayor Willie Herenton as "King Willie" simply doesn't approximate.

Those who would be king

Nevertheless, as the Oct. 4 election for mayor draws closer, Herenton's opponents have begun to flex their muscles. Crump's enemies, of course, could have taught them a thing or two about how to go for the jugular verbally, but there still are indications the kid gloves might be coming off soon.

Memphis City Council member and prominent mayoral candidate Carol Chumney, for example, is close to finalizing details related to picking a headquarters facility for her fledgling campaign. As The Daily News reported last week, she wanted to tape a few more segments of the public access TV show she hosts before pulling her petition to run for mayor, which she plans to do this month.

And as far as issues go, at the moment she has in her crosshairs the city budget Herenton recently presented to the council.

The Memphis city attorney's office is looking into the validity of a bookkeeping measure in the new budget plan that apparently helped make possible an increase in spending of $30 million, which Herenton requested.

He said, she said

Chumney said she believes the maneuver is, if not illegal, unsound public policy.

The mayor's finance team, she said, recommended the transfer of some $18 million from the city's debt service fund for spending uses that don't include paying off city debt. One problem with that is the council passes an ordinance each year setting the city's tax rate and includes a breakdown of how certain percentages of the tax rate will be spent.

To use the city's current property tax rate of $3.43 per $100 of assessed value as an example, the council might order the revenue generated by 50 cents of that $3.43 tax rate dedicated to educational needs. Another 50 cents might go toward criminal justice needs.

The council also sets aside a certain amount of money brought in by that tax rate to be spent on debt service - which refers to all the debt, interest and related costs the city has accumulated. Circumventing the council's plan for debt service, as city finance officials might have done, appears to run contrary to an 1897 Tennessee Supreme Court decision Chumney cited as legal authority - Kennedey v. Montgomery County.

"(That decision) basically says that when you levy a tax on people and you tell them it's for a certain purpose, it has to be for that purpose," she said.

The city budget Herenton recently submitted for the council's approval included no property tax increase, added $4 million to the city's reserves and included money to hire more than 100 new police officers, among other highlights. The council is in the throes of debating the finer points of that budget plan.

Throwing a wrench in the plan

But Chumney's opposition and an unfavorable ruling by city attorney Elbert Jefferson next month could wreck some of those budgetary wishes - a potentially thorny issue for the mayor's administration, especially in an election year.

If the debt service budgeting measure is deemed improper, Herenton's administration would have to go back and shave $18 million from his spending plan.

Meanwhile, mayoral candidate Herman Morris Jr. also is getting ready to rumble on the campaign trail.

Earlier this week, he staged a press conference in front of City Hall - at one point pointing behind him to illustrate a "lack of leadership" that "starts right there" - calling for a halt on selecting a new chief for the city's utility company until after the October election. Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division president and CEO Joseph Lee resigned effective May 4.

"Herenton has nearly destroyed that fine organization," said Morris, a former chief of the utility. "First he tried to sell it, and then he tried to destroy it by making it a nest for cronyism and his group of gangster managers by shoving aside the highly qualified individuals."

PROPERTY SALES 84 275 3,673
MORTGAGES 41 139 2,418
BANKRUPTCIES 23 79 1,983