Wharton Sets Stage for Budget Proposal

By Bill Dries

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. set the stage Thursday for a coming budget proposal that will include cuts in spending and reductions in services.

His state of the city address at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital came two weeks before a panel of advisers will make recommendations on streamlining city services.

“What lies ahead will not be easy and it will not be quick,” he told an audience of 250 including Memphis City Council members, his division directors and other civic leaders. He offered no specific dollar figures.

Most of his remarks touted the city’s recent economic development prizes as well as the city’s role in promoting the revitalization of neighborhoods across the city.

“Crime is down,” he said at one point. “We feel safer because guess what, we are safer.”

“We are a city on the mend and a city on the move,” Wharton added.

Wharton also put an emphasis on a transition plan in the event Memphis voters approve a Memphis City Schools charter surrender in the March 8 referendum. And he again avoided taking a position on the question, which would effectively merge the county’s two public school systems.

Wharton told reporters later that he intends to take a stand on the question at some point, but for now he says a stand would taint his effort to get the ball rolling on some kind of transition planning either before or after Election Day.

He is assembling a group of experts independent of the vigorous local debate that moved this week into a series of forums and town hall meetings across the city.

“I’m not going to venture into that,” Wharton said when asked if it would be possible to have a transition plan floated before Election Day.

“The bottom line is that we can come up with a transition plan that does the two things I said,” Wharton told reporters. “First of all, do not disrupt the learning process of the children and second, whatever you do don’t jeopardize the Gates Foundation or the Race to the Top funding.”

Wharton was referring to $90 million in funding for MCS education reform by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the MCS share of $500 million in federal RTTT funding to the state of Tennessee.

Wharton said the charter surrender question has become a two-level political debate that involves what happens to the school systems and the coming citywide referendum.

Wharton strongly defended the right of Memphians to decide the fate of the Memphis City Schools system. Critics of the charter surrender and merger have argued county residents outside Memphis should be able to vote in the election and there is legislation pending in Nashville that would include those voters.

Wharton said again Tuesday that the referendum should stay on schedule and should be a vote of Memphians.