VOL. 123 | NO. 48 | Monday, March 10, 2008
Trends & Analysis
Wharton, Others to Discuss Finances Today
By Andy Meek
ECONOMIC DISCUSSION: Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has convened an economic roundtable discussion that will take place this morning at the University of Memphis. -- Photo By Andy Meek
Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has invited some of the top financial minds both in and out of county government to a roundtable discussion that will be held this morning at the University of Memphis.
His goal is for that group of municipal officials, real estate professionals and economic researchers to analyze the county's current economic woes and to put them into context for the public. But another reason Wharton convened today's meeting, which starts at 10 a.m. in the U of M's Fogelman Executive Center, is because government, in his words, has "slept through a revolution."
The idea behind today's economic panel discussion comes against the backdrop of Wharton's recent appeal to the public for ideas on how to improve the county's financial footing. That appeal came in the form of a request that anyone with cost-cutting ideas get in touch with him either by phone, mail or in person.
The county mayor defended today's forum and the public plea he made last month by saying that the public deserves to know the full extent of the worrisome economic trends the county is facing.
"I think what we're seeing is that government has slept through a revolution - has slept through an awakening, if you will, in terms of people saying, 'Sure, we want you to be our leaders, but not our rulers,'" Wharton said. "People are saying, 'We want you to lead, but we want to be heard as you lead. No longer do we want top-down, as if we're just a docile group of people.'
"My point is that people want to be heard. And that's why if people say there's something shameful about me saying, 'Look, I don't have all the answers, I need to hear from you' - then I will gladly wear that badge of shame."
Among those expected to be on hand for today's roundtable are Jules Wade, executive vice president of the Memphis Area Association of Realtors; Shelby County Property Assessor Rita Clark; and Deidre Malone, chairwoman of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners' budget committee.
Specific economic data and forecasts will come from participants including Dr. Phyllis Betts, an urban affairs and public policy professor at the U of M, as well as Dr. John Gnuschke, professor and director of the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research/Center for Manpower Studies at the U of M.
Wharton described today's event in terms that suggest it primarily will serve as an exhaustive informational session.
But privately, at least one roundtable participant has questioned the wisdom of a session in which the financial brain trust Wharton convened only talks about problems facing the county and doesn't give equal time to brainstorming for solutions.
That appears to be why the county mayor made his companion announcement last month asking the public - outside of the meeting - to contact county officials with budget suggestions.
"The purpose of (today) is to open up how we - we, meaning the county - how we make our revenue projections, particularly with respect to the value of our realty," Wharton said. "We want it to be presented in a way that folks don't just have to accept at face value what we state in terms of projections.
"We simply want to make sure that nobody thinks that we have some hidden formula down here that only we understand. Because we feel things are going to be fairly drastic, if not this year, then certainly next year."
Several participants in today's roundtable expect much of the focus to be on the presentation by Betts, who will give an overview of troubling trends such as subprime lending and foreclosure data in a broad sense as well as down to the neighborhood level.
"What I want to do is point up the extent to which the homeownership market in Memphis has been based on shaky premises and some of the recent developments in the mortgage market since the 1990s," Betts said. "There are things that can be done, and we need to think in those terms instead of just saying, 'Get ready for the ride.'"
Wharton, meanwhile, has been on the receiving end of several responses from the public in the wake of his request for budget ideas. Some people have written and called him to suggest that the county install toll roads to generate new revenue. Others have suggested levying "sin taxes" and allowing liquor stores to sell alcohol 24 hours a day and on Sundays, Wharton said.
Some people have written the county mayor to say they'll pray for him.
"When I explain all of this to people, many of them have been kind enough to basically write back and say, 'I'm glad it's you and not me,'" Wharton said.