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VOL. 124 | NO. 113 | Thursday, June 11, 2009

Budget Debate on Through Friday

By Bill Dries

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RESOURCES, FINANCIAL AND OTHERWISE: Memphis Area Transit Authority President Will Hudson, center, told City Council members this week he could build a better city bus system if he had more buses and a larger budget. Meanwhile, the council called for more aggressive leadership at MATA. – PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

They’ve been staying until around 11 each night at City Hall in recent weeks. City Council members are moving into the final phase of their budget deliberations.

The council’s budget committee is open to all 13 commissioners, and most have been showing up for the evening sessions chaired by committee chairwoman Wanda Halbert.

The council is trying to whittle $50 million from the Herenton administration’s budget proposal. As of Tuesday evening they had about $12 million in cuts, and some council members say the final amount they cut will be closer to $30 million.

Necessary and not

At the Tuesday evening session, the committee recommended cutting $200,000 in consultant fees for the city attorney’s office. The fees would be used to set up a new system starting in February to replace the collection of delinquent city property taxes by the Linebarger law firm. Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton announced in April he is ending the city’s contract with the Texas law firm.

Halbert and other council members criticized city attorney Elbert Jefferson for not articulating a clear plan for what the consultant would do in helping the city put together a plan for delinquent tax collections.

Herenton announced he was ending the contract because of doubts some council members had voiced about the arrangement. Some questioned whether the city needed to spend the money on Linebarger instead of trying to collect the delinquent taxes in house.

Jefferson told council members this week that Linebarger collected $102.4 million in back taxes for the city since 2004. The city paid Linebarger $13.3 million in fees during that same period, Jefferson said.

Fine-toothed comb

Council member Harold Collins said the council’s goal is to target “negotiable spending” in every city division’s budget.

Jefferson complained that his office had to include among its duties the paperwork for a ban on plastic bags at festivals and other outdoor public events.

The claim got him in hot water as several council members including Halbert quickly called him on it. The plastic bag ban was considered but never enacted by the council.

“That has nothing to do with pending lawsuits,” Collins said of the permits operation as a whole. “Why is that in your budget?”

Halbert had the same question about other internal city functions.

“It’s odd that the attorney’s office is overseeing drug tests,” she said.

“It works,” Jefferson said as he protested that cuts in his budget would have a ripple effect on other divisions that rely on his for certain services.

“We wouldn’t have a ripple effect if it was in their budget,” council member Barbara Swearengen Ware responded.

Same story

The Memphis Area Transit Authority’s $17.9 million operating budget met with little opposition from council members.

But MATA President Will Hudson fielded the annual questions about why the city bus system wasn’t doing more to attract new riders.

“It shouldn’t take an hour to get from a certain point to Downtown,” Halbert said, passing on several complaints she’s had about bus service.

“I’m not being smart,” Hudson began in response. “A lot of cities have a dedicated funding source that allows them to do that. … They beat up on us all the time. … It’s not about we don’t know how to run a transit system. They talk about a grid system. Let me tell you something. If I had the money, I could put it out there.”

Hudson said he is running a bus system with hundreds fewer buses on fixed routes than he had just several years ago. He also said the prospect of $19 million in federal funding for a light-rail system is money he “can’t do anything with” because the light rail lacks political support.

Collins said he sympathized but called for more aggressive leadership in mass transit.

“I think people ride what they want to ride because it might be appealing,” he said. “I’m not trying to be mean … but I think people will be more receptive if the transit system reflected something upon which they might want to ride.”

The budget committee’s three days of wrap-up sessions on the budget end Friday evening.

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 85 205 21,165
MORTGAGES 76 206 24,338
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 27 34 3,135
BUILDING PERMITS 183 321 43,755
BANKRUPTCIES 48 92 13,560
BUSINESS LICENSES 31 44 6,756
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 25 32 7,931
MARRIAGE LICENSES 22 41 4,775