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VOL. 125 | NO. 99 | Friday, May 21, 2010

Different Mayor, Same Story in Budget Talks

By Bill Dries

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Memphis has had three mayors since the last budget season at City Hall, and the latest appears to have picked up where the other left off.

Several City Council members are questioning the budget priorities of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., just as they questioned those of former

Mayor Willie Herenton.

The council members, led by Jim Strickland and Shea Flinn, point out that both mayors have proposed closing the Cossitt and Highland branch libraries as well as some municipal golf courses.

But so far, the votes have not been there in committee for Strickland, Flinn and others to substitute

different cuts, including pay raises for city employees.

“Another day” has become the mantra of the council members who are getting outvoted. They hope to have the votes before the full 13-member council or as attendance picks up at the budget committee sessions.

On Tuesday, when the budget committee reviewed the Memphis Area Transit Authority's budget proposal, council member Barbara Swearengen Ware proposed increasing the budget by $255,000 so MATA would not have to lay off 25 employees.

“In these tough economic times, we don’t need to be laying people off,” she said. “We get enough hits about our transportation system. When you start decreasing employees, it’s just going to get worse instead of getting better.”

Budget committee chairman Bill Morrison cautioned that the change would mean cutting $255,000 from some other part of the city budget and then seconded the motion and joined Ware in voting for it. They were the only two council members in the committee room at the time.

“Nobody wants a tax hike. But everybody wants more services,” council member Bill Boyd said during a break in the hearings Wednesday.

So far, a tax hike is not on the table. Wharton’s budget proposal offers the council budget options and none of them include tax hikes. Wharton has left open the door and said he will request one if that is what it takes to deliver a balanced budget.

But the council’s political will for a tax hike is weak at best.

Wharton came into office late last year proposing a one-time temporary tax hike to pay part of the $50 million the city owes the Memphis school system by court order. The council soundly rejected the option.

Much of the discussion is about what to cut and that’s where the disagreement lies.

No matter who is mayor or who serves on the council, each side tends to question how the other chooses particular items for cuts.

Wharton reacted to the council criticism Wednesday with a written statement.

“My own boys learned to golf at Overton Park and I have personally spent countless hours among the shelves of our local libraries,” he wrote. “I want to assure all Memphians that my decisions about our budget are driven by nothing but the stark reality of our fiscal situation.”

Wharton also noted that the library closings had been recommended in a 2007 efficiency study commissioned by the Herenton administration.

He also attributed the necessity of the cuts to a combination of the national economic recession and “a broken revenue model for our city that has been strangling our middle class for years.”

Morrison said some of the budget cuts amount to moving expenses “off the books.”

The Highland branch library is an example.

The library is in the University Neighborhood Community Development zone. The University of Memphis is a part of the plan to revamp the area with commercial and residential development already under way.

Among the proposals being considered is transforming the Highland branch into a branch of the university’s library for use by students as well as the public.

Because the golf courses being proposed for closing – Riverside and Overton – are nine-hole courses, they have appeared in past budget proposals for closing.

Meanwhile, the police and fire departments are also on Wharton’s list of proposed cuts. Overtime, out-of-rank pay and travel costs have been cut to the tune of $1.2 million in the fire budget. The police budget would take a $2.7 million hit through cuts in overtime, and property and evidence staff.

Police Director Larry Godwin outlined other cuts Wednesday before the council budget committee, including eliminating 33 police service technician positions, education assistance for them and 13 already vacant civilian positions.

Godwin told the council 196 new police officers completed training and hit the streets in the fiscal year that ends June 30. And the department continues toward its goal of becoming a police force of 2,470 officers.

PROPERTY SALES 83 405 4,276
MORTGAGES 104 424 4,814
BUILDING PERMITS 148 883 10,151
BANKRUPTCIES 53 264 3,149