VOL. 127 | NO. 163 | Tuesday, August 21, 2012
City Leaders Look to New Governing Plan
By Bill Dries
When 10 of the 13 Memphis City Council members get together around a table it is usually in their committee room on the fifth floor of City Hall for their regular meetings.
But last week they gathered in Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s seventh-floor conference room at his request.
The Wednesday, Aug. 15, gathering was the kickoff of Wharton’s effort to come up with a five-year financial strategic and budget plan for city government. The goal is to create the plan by February.
“This is not some dream budget,” Wharton began as he introduced a team to work with the council that includes city Chief Financial Officer Robert Lipscomb and consultants with PFM Group, the company that has advised both city and county governments for years on financial policy including bond financing. It also includes Archie Willis and Pam Clary of Community Capital.
Leading the PFM team is David Eichenthal who was finance officer for the city of Chattanooga when current U.S. Sen. Bob Corker was its mayor.
“Budgets tend to be episodic. … Most of the solutions and challenges tend to be long term,” Eichenthal said as he made a distinction between budget cuts and a more efficient government. “I think local governments have tended to have a lot of practice at cutting budgets. … I think the challenge in the work that we do is to look at every opportunity for greater efficiency in local government.”
The working group will look at all proposals suggested, Wharton said as he asked that when Lipscomb includes information about those ideas that council members not assume that’s the direction the five-year plan is taking.
Since most of the 13 council members took office in 2008, the council has had a lively, loud and at times contentious debate about how and where to change city government in a long-term way. So far, no one has had enough votes for one faction to declare an absolute victory over the other. A factor in that has been city government’s continuing financial challenges.
Those challenges range from funding city schools to advancing the money to city schools in anticipation of other tax revenues that didn’t live up to projections to expectations that property tax revenue will shrink with next year’s reappraisal process.
“We don’t have growth. We have sprawl,” Lipscomb said as he talked of policy challenges and the need for a plan that most in the room can agree on as a direction.
“It’s hard to do that but I think we have to do that,” he said of a plan he defined as “data driven, issues focused and policy directed.”
The process is a kind of debut for Lipscomb in the role of city CFO.
When Wharton began his first full term of office in January his plans included the CFO position.
Lipscomb, who remains the city’s director of housing and community development, had served in the CFO’s position in 2005. Then-mayor Willie Herenton created the position on a temporary basis after acknowledging he didn’t have a specific idea of the city’s financial state.
The new council that followed decided to not rely as heavily on the mayor’s office for advice and counsel on the broader view of the city’s finances.
“This process in my mind is crucial to the future of city government especially if the sales tax increase does not pass,” said council budget committee chairman Jim Strickland. “We should be judged at the end of the day by what we can do to put city government on sound financial footing. This plan will be a tool to do that.”
Council member Janis Fullilove applauded the idea of “no sacred cows” in the planning process. It’s a general idea that is easy to accept at the outset of the process than it will be if recommendations are made to outsource some city services or to cut some outright.
As she endorsed the general idea, Fullilove asked how far the recommendations may go into areas like outsourcing.
She also wanted to know whether the plan would include a very specific item – cameras to catch those illegally dumping in the Boxtown community, which is part of her district.
Without mentioning Fullilove by name, council chairman Bill Morrison warned against the competition that sometimes arises among council members when projects are viewed as being in one council member’s district.
“I think as long as we all remember that this is not about our district,” he said. “It’s about our city and the people that live in our city that we will make the right choices and the difficult choices.”