Wharton: Revenue Officer Needed

By Bill Dries

Call it a “budget resolution.” A week after the Memphis City Council set the city’s operating budget, capital budget and a property tax rate of $3.40, council members and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. resolved Tuesday, July 2, to continue making changes in City Hall’s financial practices.


Wharton wants to hire a city “revenue officer” as a next step. He also set a schedule of monthly goals through the end of 2013 to discuss with the council such major financial issues as pension plan obligations and employee benefits.

He briefed council members on the long-term financial issues during the Tuesday council executive session.

Wharton described the revenue officer as “someone whose sole responsibility is to wake up every day and make sure we collect every parking ticket,” and collect other revenue due the city.

The council will vote, possibly at its July 16 meeting, on establishing the position, and whoever Wharton appointed would be confirmed by the council. Wharton did not say how much the person holding the position might be paid or what kind of staff the officer would have. But he said he wanted to have someone in the position by Aug. 1.

“We need to get this done, like right now, because what we are looking at in the coming budget – we need to get every dollar that’s collectible,” Wharton said. “We’ve retained one attorney, and in six months time he brought in $240,000. … That’s just one lawyer working on it. Could you imagine if we had a full revenue officer working on it?”

Wharton also talked of a possible conversion of city employees from a defined benefits plan to a defined contribution plan. But he said the administration would come to the council with a variety of options between those two choices.

“The next step is to come back with a range of options,” said George Little, the city’s chief administrative officer. “We will have all in between and costs and how to finance. It could be a hybrid. It could be changing our benefit mix.”

The schedule Wharton set for the major initiatives begins in August with a solid waste management proposal that could involve converting to a quarterly pickup schedule with sites citizens would take certain kinds of trash to.

Pension findings are next in September, followed in October by health care benefits.

Calls for planning for the next budget season to begin earlier than April are common in city and county government but rarely translate into action.

But this time may be different because of concerns state officials have about the city’s pension funding obligations as well as its debt. When state comptroller Justin Wilson weighed in with those concerns in May, it forced Wharton and the council to turn their focus away from projects and initiatives and toward the financing of city government and in particular city personnel costs.

City finance director Brian Collins said Tuesday the state’s interest in the city’s pension obligations, which came after the May report and letter, is a pattern of inquiries by the state comptroller’s office involving a dozen other local governments across the state.

“I think they are just aggregating data,” Collins told council members. “There were no findings expected. It was a fact-gathering exercise as far as we know at this point.”

Some council members believe state officials may be building up to some new requirements on the city that will require immediate additional funding of pension obligations.

Meanwhile, the council is still tying up some loose ends from the end of its budget season last week just before the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.

One of the loose ends is $250,000 the council voted to cut from the city’s share of funding for the Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE). The cut was approved as an amendment to a larger plan that failed last week, but most council members thought it had passed. The council could reopen the issue at its July 16 meeting with a separate resolution on the funding cut.

Council chairman Edmund Ford Jr. tried to reconsider the capital budget Tuesday to add $1.5 million in city funding toward a renovation of the Southbrook Mall in Whitehaven. The bid for additional funding by council member Janis Fullilove was voted down last week.

Although Ford voted on the prevailing side and could move for reconsideration, the council approved the part of the minutes of the meeting that includes the capital budget the same night it voted on the matter. So, the budget approval was final and could not be reconsidered.