Council Preps for Late Summer Sales Tax Hike Referendum

By Bill Dries

A referendum on a half percent city sales tax hike to fund a city pre kindergarten expansion and roll back the city property tax rate by 20 cents would happen in August or September instead of May.

Memphis City Council members Shea Flinn and Jim Strickland revised their proposal Tuesday, Jan. 22, as the council moved toward a Feb. 5 vote on the resolution establishing a pre kindergarten trust committee and the first of three readings on an ordinance authorizing the referendum.

Council members heard Tuesday from pre kindergarten program administrators in the Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools systems as well as Shelby County government’s Head Start program.

Of the estimated $47 million in revenue from the half percent sales tax hike, $27 million would go to fund pre kindergarten classes in Memphis. A pre-k board would administer the trust fund and contract for the pre-k services. The remaining $20 million would be used to roll back the city property tax rate by 20 cents. Both uses for the money are in the referendum ordinance.

Council member Wanda Halbert, however, stressed the need for “accountability” as she questioned why existing pre kindergarten services haven’t had more of an impact on student achievement.

Meanwhile, the city of Memphis saved $2.8 million when it handed over the collection of city property taxes to the Shelby County Trustee’s office. The savings came from a computer upgrade the city would have had to make if the tax collections remained in the city treasurer’s office.

The Wharton administration wants to spend all but $1 million of that on a dozen projects, many involving grants from the state or private groups that require some kind of match of city funding.

The council approved using $1.2 million of the money for two of the projects on the list – infrastructure around the site of the Nike plant expansion in Frayser and the “Main To Main” project connecting Main Street Memphis to Broadway Street in West Memphis including a boardwalk across the Harahan Bridge over the Mississippi River.

Council members voted to hold the other items on the list for more questions at a Feb. 5 committee session. The other projects include the development of Fletcher Creek Park in Cordova, a space use study of City Hall, development of retail in the Walker Avenue area next to the University of Memphis campus and still tentative plans to close Coughlin Drive onto Brooks Road in Whitehaven for future development.

The council delayed to its first meeting in February a committee discussion about a proposal by council member Myron Lowery to rename Nathan Bedford Forrest Park to include the name of Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching crusader of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Lowery was out of town for Tuesday’s committee sessions.

That didn’t stop council members Bill Boyd and Janis Fullilove from exchanging words about the Confederate General, slave trader and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Boyd contends Forrest’s title did not make him a founder of the group.

“He had nothing to do with that,” Boyd said as he also claimed the Klan was “a social club” in Forrest’s time and only became violent during the early 20th century.

Fullilove responded: “That is a lie and history shows us that’s a lie.”

Lee Millar, head of the Forrest chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, also made his case for returning a Forrest Park name marker the group paid for from private funds and put in the park late last year. City chief administrative officer George Little ordered the marker removed and taken to a city storage facility this month.

Little, who had been in the committee room for another matter just before the discussion about Forrest Park, as well as Janet Hooks, parks and neighborhood division director, both left as the Forrest Park proposal came up.

Deputy city chief administrative officer Maura Sullivan told council members the administration has not approved the marker for the park. Millar has produced emails from city parks director Cynthia Buchanan in 2011 which he says give the group permission to place the marker. Sullivan said the letters do not give permission and that the signage would also have to have the approval of the design review board of the Downtown Memphis Commission.

In other action, the council approved a planned development for The Pyramid that includes its redevelopment as a Bass Pro Shops retail center.

The council approval, necessary to include a hotel in the plans, came with no debate.

Approved on third and final reading was an ordinance that creates a caterer’s permit for the storing, selling, manufacturing and distribution of “light alcoholic beverages.”

Also approved was a special use permit for at outdoor flea market at the old Imperial Bowling Lanes, 4700 Summer Avenue.