Ballpark Deal Back on Council’s Agenda

By Bill Dries

After getting a rough reception last week, the deal for the city of Memphis to buy AutoZone Park and the St. Louis Cardinals to buy the Memphis Redbirds baseball team returns to the Memphis City Council Monday, Dec. 9, for a vote.

The council meets at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 125 N. Main St., in a special session that technically resumes the Dec. 3 meeting the council recessed, leaving the ballpark deal as the only item remaining on the council’s agenda.

AutoZone Park Report

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Most of the 13 council members indicated last week that they weren’t prepared to vote on the complex financial deal among six parties, including the city and Shelby County government. And many on the council were vocal in their criticism of the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. for bringing the details to them within 24 hours of the council session.

Resolving their concerns about the $25 million in revenue bonds the city would finance through the Center City Revenue Finance Corp. may not be as easy as answering questions about the technical aspects of the transaction.

“It is hard on the face of the matter to square purchasing a stadium with a community benefit. It’s very hard to see that,” council member Lee Harris said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News.

“The numbers might pencil out and they may work but that is beside the point,” Harris added. “We could buy a Wendy’s franchise and the numbers could pencil out. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is within the vision of the city of Memphis.”

The administration’s view of what happens if the council votes down the deal is starkly different, as outlined in the 68-page document the council got less than 24 hours before last week’s council session that goes into the specifics of the transaction.

A “top line summary” lists the city’s objectives in the transaction. One of those objectives is “The AAA baseball team is not sold and the ballpark does not go dark.”

Fundamental Advisors, the equity firm that effectively owns the franchise and the ballpark since Memphis Redbirds Foundation defaulted on its bonds in 2007, hasn’t said what they might do without a deal.

Meanwhile, the administration might seek Monday to have the council reconsider its decision last week to turn down an increase in the city’s solid waste fee.

While the council voted down the ordinance on third and final reading, it approved another ordinance on final reading that gives city sanitation workers a retirement supplement of up to $1,000 a month.

The administration proposed increasing the solid waste fee by $2.25 a month to restore it to the rate it dropped to effective with the July 1 start of the current fiscal year.

The plan was for the city’s public works division to use the revenue from the increase to buy new recycling carts for the coming expansion of materials the city accepts for recycling as well as buy, over several years, new vehicles for a sanitation services fleet that is in some cases nearing 20 years on the streets.

Council member Jim Strickland pointed to city and county property tax hikes, a new streetlight fee that comes with the city’s transfer of streetlights to Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division and other fees that the city has increased.

“That is all in the last six months,” he said. “We are increasing everything we can get our hands on. … This needs to stop. The public keeps paying more for the benefit of City Hall.”

Several council members questioned city Chief Administrative Officer George Little on what effect keeping the solid waste fee at its current monthly rate of $22.80 would have on funding the retirement supplements.

The administration has been adamant that it was not seeking the fee hike to directly fund the supplements. The supplements, according to Little, will be funded with savings in an overhaul of sanitation services that includes workers making more stops on their routes.

But the overhaul also includes efficiencies and savings that come from being able to have new vehicles in the fleet and broadening recycling. Little told council members Tuesday that without the fee hike, having the revenue for the supplement would be “a pretty tough stone to get to the top of the hill” but that the administration could do it.

With that, the council amended the supplement ordinance to specifically say that if the city did not realize savings in sanitation services, there would be no monthly supplement for retired sanitation workers.

The approval of the supplement as amended was still a close 7-6 vote for the council.