Wharton’s Transition Team Unveils Agenda

By Bill Dries

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s transition team has recommended a chief economic development director for the city, a more comprehensive financial plan for city government and reining in the city’s Capital Improvement budget.

Eleven of the 17 team members handed over their formal findings in nine areas Monday.

“These are things that can be done and will be done,” Wharton said as he emphasized the need for more rigid budget goals. “We need … some way of developing long-term strategies, not simply lurching from financial crisis to financial crisis.”

Sticking with a financial bottom line can be difficult because of political pressures to fund projects that materialize after an operating budget is set. Asked how he will deal with such political pressure, Wharton deadpanned, “unpopularly.”

“There’s always going to be a push. … My job will be to say something has to give somewhere. You can’t do everything,” Wharton said. “You’ve got a (economic) pie that’s not growing right now and that’s not unique to Memphis and Shelby County.”

Discretionary leadership

Wharton said the transition team’s goals are meant to be carried out during his two years in office.

“Why didn’t y’all tell me where I can get more money?” he joked.

“We need … some way of developing long-term strategies, not simply lurching from financial crisis to financial crisis.”

– Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.

Another finding is that the administration should not propose more in Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) than it has the money to fund. Such one-time construction and renovation projects are usually funded with bond money.

For decades, mayoral administrations have sent CIP budgets to the council that have more projects than bond money for that year to finance the projects. Council members get projects on the drawing board for their districts to tout at election time. But at times, some on the council have called for a more realistic spending plan.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., left, talks Monday with transition team member and City Councilman Edmund Ford Jr., center, as well as team member Darrell Thomas of Thomas Consultants Inc. Photo: Bill Dries

Some of the transition findings touch on problems that began during the administration of former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, who resigned at the end of July to run for Congress.

However, Wharton and transition team members avoided mentioning Herenton by name or laying specific blame on his administration.

Wharton declined last month to renew the appointment of city Human Resources director Lorene Essex. He has not yet appointed a successor to the post, which handles hiring, firing, benefits and evaluating city employees.

The survey says ...

The transition team enlisted the help of several private business HR department heads to evaluate the city’s department. The team and the HR experts found plenty of information technology hardware and software, but too little use of it to keep the city’s records orderly or quickly available for rapid decision-making.

“Some of our people actually felt that the technology here was better than the technology found at some Fortune 500 companies,” said transition team co-chairman Cato Johnson.

Soon after taking office Wharton began calling for a closer look at HR practices.

Criticism of the department increased last month as some City Council members criticized Essex and her department for taking up to two years to hire and notify qualified recruits for the Memphis Police Department.

“We had the same situation at the animal shelter,” Wharton said, touching on the first administrative problem he inherited. The shelter was raided in late October by the Sheriff’s Department and the Shelby County District Attorney General’s office on Wharton’s first full day in office. “We had the best technology that you could find anywhere.”

More inclusiveness needed

The city and county governments now have an economic development department headed by Charles Gullotta.

Gullota has won good reviews for organizing the office and coordinating the cataloging of past corporate tax breaks known as payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOTs). Tracing the past PILOTs was instrumental in reforming the policies for awarding them and eliminating some of the bureaucratic requirements meant to ensure businesses didn’t take the tax break and leave when the breaks ran out.

The data showed virtually all of the businesses getting PILOTs stayed after the tax breaks ran out and that the city and county governments got more in tax revenue over time than they gave in tax breaks.

Wharton said he wants the department to remain a joint agency and report directly to the Memphis and Shelby County mayors.

“That’s an enterprise in and of itself that we’ve got to expand and which we have to become much more aggressive in,” Wharton said. He also plans to couple the higher economic development profile with a more visible effort to grow minority-owned businesses.

“We don’t need a bunch of experts to tell us that to really turn this city around, we’ve got to have a minorities and women plan with a greater role in the real economy of our city,” Wharton added.