Council Gets Overview of Public Safety Spending

By Bill Dries

Memphis City Council members got a first and at times conflicting look Tuesday, Jan. 21, at the hard decisions they could make about city spending on public safety.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. walked the council through some ideas for cuts in city spending beyond larger changes in city retirement and health benefits. Those obligations are the “cornerstone” of the efforts to get the city’s financial house in order, said city Chief Administrative Officer George Little.

Finding the money for that will mean shifting money from other areas of city government at about $15 million a year over the next five fiscal years. The police and fire departments are 80 percent of all city employees and 60 percent of city general fund spending.

The day of committee sessions at City Hall began with Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong telling the council that cuts could take his department down to a complement of 1,900 officers from its current 2,400 complement.

Wharton and Little returned to the council’s executive session that afternoon to correct that, saying Armstrong was referring to 583 positions in the department the city has “frozen” or is not filling at least for now.

“We are not cutting 583 positions in the Memphis Police Department,” Little said.

Armstrong has warned several times since last year of police station closings and police possibly not answering some calls for service if his budget is cut. He did the same Tuesday.

Meanwhile financial consultants to the city with the firm Public Financial Management outlined possible changes in the city’s approach to services provide by the police and fire departments.

David Eichenthal of PFM said other major U.S. cities have been able to reduce crime without the same sort of build up in personnel the Memphis Police Department has had over several years. He also said uniformed Memphis Police officers perform duties that are handled by civilian employees in most other cities PFM surveyed.

He added the fire department’s growth in expenses is driven “almost entirely” by staffing that is based on a model that doesn’t place firefighters and equipment based on where the calls for service are and the type of calls for services which are mostly for emergency medical services, not fires.

The PFM report also recommends consolidating the “back office” functions of both departments.

At its voting meeting later, the council approved hiring its own actuary or accounting firm to evaluate the administration’s numbers on the issue of the city’s unfunded pension liability and other critical financial information.

In other action, the council approved a set of six alley and street closures on parcels on land totaling 28 acres in the Poplar Avenue-Cleveland Street area. The area, once known as Washington Bottoms, was cleared of buildings in anticipation of future redevelopment in 2008 by a Memphis division of WSG Development Co. of Miami Beach, Fla.

Lehman Brothers Holdings loaned WSG $14 million and foreclosed in 2010.

The council Tuesday approved Lehman’s application for the same street and alley closures WSG had approval for earlier. Tuesday’s approval is good for three years.

The council also approved accepting $7.6 million in federal grant funding for the design and construction of improvements to Forest Hill Irene Road from Walnut Grove Road to Rocky Point Road and $661,795 in state funds as a grant for Walker Avenue streetscape improvements near the University of Memphis campus.

And the council approved a resolution by council member Myron Lowery that calls on the Shelby County Election Commission to have an effective and capable administrator.

Lowery originally offered a “no confidence” resolution targeting Shelby County Elections Adminstrator Richard Holden, similar to one approved by the Shelby County Commission last year.

He changed the wording after several council members said they didn’t want to appear to be interfering with the election commission. Some council members also expressed concern about a no confidence resolution with word last week that FBI agents are going to interview Holden in an investigation that includes several staff at the election commission who worked on voter registration, a problem area highlighted in a Shelby County government internal audit last year.