Council Pursues Alternatives To Tax Hike

By Bill Dries

City Council member Ed Ford Jr.’s students finished their algebra tests this week and he took them to Chik-fil-A as a reward.


It is one of the few diversions Ford is allowing himself this budget season in which he and other council members are contemplating ways around the 47-cent property tax hike Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has proposed for the fiscal year that begins July 1.


“I’ve been working on this for the last four-and-a-half months,” he said Tuesday, May 1, after the council budget committee’s second session. “That’s the reason why I don’t have any meetings with my administrative assistant and anyone else because I’ve been working on this. … I’m taking it that seriously.”

Ford expects to present a plan for user fees to pay the cost of some city programs similar to the proposals he made last year at about this time. He is one of four council members believed to be working on alternate budget plans.

“Constructive criticism is welcome but at the same time with that criticism I would like to see alternatives instead of no plan at all,” Ford said of what he hopes the council’s dialogue will be like.

So far, budget committee chairman Jim Strickland said the council is listening.

“I think frankly the tax increase is so big – the gap is so big – people are really doing a lot more studying than they probably did last year,” he added.

Council members heard administration plans Tuesday, May 1, to close several libraries, close community centers on Saturdays and shut down the Whitehaven golf course. They then requested more information on how they are operated and what the current costs are.

Council member Harold Collins suggested closing golf courses for the winter instead of keeping them open year round including the normally mild Memphis winters.

If the council continues its pattern of action on budget matters in recent years, there will be more suggestions like that and more questions for division directors on taking alternate steps to the ones the directors are proposing.

Ford wants to change the priority of the property tax hike in the deliberations.

“If we’re not able to find $47 million there,” he said of his still developing plan for user fees, “whatever the remaining balance is then let’s look at both avenues whether its cutting or taxes, but let’s not put the cart before the horse.

“If we can find $47 million worth of revenue then we don’t have to worry about anything. But it’s going to take all of us instead of me finding the ideas.”

The remark is a reflection of the two ideological camps that have existed in recent years on the council. One camp reacts to any budget cuts, layoffs or attempts to privatize any services by voting against them. The other camp reacts to the idea of increasing revenue through tax hikes with proposals for those budget cuts, layoffs or attempts at privatization.

Each of the camps tend to lose votes to the other side depending on the specific proposals involved. Some in the first camp also have problems with a property tax hike and user fees like those proposed by Ford. Some in the second camp are concerned about privatization plans.

Both of the factions agreed earlier this year to reject the idea of levying the one-time-only 18-cent property tax increase they approved last year.

Wharton says the 47-cent tax hike he wants for the new fiscal year includes that as well as enough to pay Memphis City Schools what the city is legally obligated to pay the school system in the last year of its existence before the merger of the county’s two public school systems. But he has not called it a temporary one-time-only tax hike.

Strickland and other council members aren’t using the term or buying it either.

“There’s no such thing as one-time funding in my mind – the wheel tax. We talked earlier about a solid waste fee increase that was approved two years ago on a temporary basis and it’s supposed to expire next year,” Strickland said. “The public works director told us today that he can’t operate unless we extend that fee. … It just doesn’t work. So I think we’ve got to work really hard to avoid it.”

Strickland has been the most vocal critic so far of any property tax hike.

“I keep saying … that I’m for no tax increase,” he said Tuesday. “Have I figured out how to get there yet? No.”