Complex Agenda

Mayor Wharton looks to add to priorities in 2013

By Bill Dries

In the first year of his first full four-year term of office as Memphis mayor, A C Wharton Jr. put his political weight behind shifting priorities at City Hall.

A year ago, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. began a full four-year term of office by taking the oath on New Year’s Day. He looks to add to priorities in 2013.

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

In that year, he attempted to broaden the police department’s anti-crime strategy beyond the Blue CRUSH brand of hot spot crime crackdowns. He moved further in his long-held quest to redefine violence – particularly gun violence – as a public health issue. And Wharton continued to meld private funding with an advancing of public funding from different pockets to move capital construction projects inside and outside of the Downtown core area in a stubborn post-recession environment.

Those efforts and others during 2012 pointed toward more complexity at City Hall in the year to come.

Wharton’s goal generally is to keep those multiple fronts moving in 2013 and beyond. His first two years in office, filling out the remainder of Willie Herenton’s term of office, were what he once described as “triage” and it is a phase he was eager to move away from once he won the October 2011 mayoral election.

“Our city will survive as long as we don’t get too comfortable thinking that we have arrived,” he told around 200 people this week at City Council member Myron Lowery’s New Year’s Day prayer breakfast. “Memphis will continue to be a city that fights, fights, fights until the last dog dies.”

Wharton again said the city will not be funding the consolidated public school system that begins in August – an estimated $50 million to $70 million up for grabs when the budget season begins this spring for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Some council members want to drop the city property tax rate of $3.11 per $100 of assessed value closer to the $3 mark.

Wharton wants to at least make some progress on restoring the pay lost when city employees took a 4.6 percent pay cut.

“One way we have funded schools and kept taxes down is that we took money that should have gone to fire and police … parks and put that in schools,” he said.

“If you add up two years of not getting a raise and a 4.6 (percent pay) cut, that comes to $16.5 million each year … out of the employees’ pockets. That’s going to be a priority as we go into the budget year.”

Wharton is facing some vocal concerns about what would be the last major chapter of the drive to wipe out the large public housing developments that have defined public housing in Memphis since the Great Depression.

The drive, which includes replacing the public housing with mixed-use, mixed-income developments began during the late 1990s under then-Mayor Herenton. By the time Wharton took office in late 2009, only Cleaborn Homes and Foote Homes were left standing and demolition of Cleaborn Homes began with Wharton pushing the working end of a front-end loader into one of the housing units there.

But the redevelopment of Cleaborn with the possible but not yet proposed demolition and redevelopment of Foote Homes are part of a much larger development plan first called Triangle Noir and now called Heritage Trail. Cleaborn and Foote are a much smaller part of the total plan than other housing projects have been of the plans that centered on them.

Several development bodies have concerns about how the plan to use city and county property tax revenue from the area will affect payments-in-lieu-of-taxes incentives they use to freeze property taxes to leverage private investment in parts of the same area.

The administration also intends to restart a plan for development of the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

The Wharton administration is expected to go to Nashville pushing boundaries for a tourism development zone to capture sales tax revenue within the zone to finance Fairgrounds redevelopment that include the Overton Square entertainment district.

City Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb added a $12 million renovation of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium to the Fairgrounds tab to settle issues with the U.S. Justice Department over the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Meanwhile, the city’s Innovation Delivery Team, funded in its operation into 2014 by the Bloomberg Philanthropies of New York, enjoyed some success in 2012 with the MEMshop concept of pop-up temporary retail for a limited time in the Crosstown and Overton Square areas.

The Innovation Delivery Team works toward goals that tend to cross boundaries. Wharton has enlisted the help of Innovation Delivery Team director Doug McGowen in other areas like a plan for the future of Memphis International Airport. He’s also had to stress that while McGowen is involved in areas outside the funded goals of the Innovation Team that the money for the goals Bloomberg is staying where the city pledged it would.