Memphis City Council members opened budget hearings Tuesday, April 29, with no frills presentations from city division directors and leaders of agencies funded by the city.
And with a majority of the 13-member council present for the opening day of the hearings, council members recommended $12 million in cuts from various departments, divisions and agencies by the lunch break in the all-day session and put the money toward the city’s annual required contribution for pension liability.
The budget hearings chaired by council member Lee Harris resume Tuesday, May 6.
“This pension and health care benefit problem is urgent. If we’re not going to take action now and take the bull by the horns … then future council members are going to have to pay the piper,” Harris said.
The amount cut and diverted to the pension liability, if approved by the full council, would be in addition to the $15 million Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has included in his budget proposal as part of a ramp-up over five fiscal years to take the city’s annual required contribution from the current $20 million to $100 million.
Several council members want to get the city to the $100 million contribution in the next two fiscal years, with the decisions on the second fiscal year made before the 2015 city elections.
Meanwhile, Harris is keeping a tight rein on the divisions’ broad overviews and PowerPoint presentations, which in past years have been less about line items and more about overall mission statements.
“I hate information presentations. That is a waste of time. I can read the information at any time at my leisure. If I’m going to have a meeting, I want to see folks take action,” he said. “What usually happens … is we wait until the last minute, and then we stack a lot of proposals on each other at the last second and it’s hard to consider them in a thoughtful manner.”
The cuts are not final, and the net amount of cuts recommended by committee is likely to be different as council members decide to increase funding in some areas or reconsider some of the cuts.
The budget committee voted Tuesday, for instance, to add $800,000 in city funding to the Memphis Area Transit Authority budget, which Wharton already proposed increasing by another $1.5 million.
Harris moved the funding over Wharton’s increase to bring the bus line back to its 2010 funding level.
“The point is we are at least going to start a discussion with a budget that at least represents the interest of this community,” Harris said. “We’ve got to start somewhere.”
The additional funding recommended in committee is contingent on it not being used to fund transit authority shuttle service to sports events unless the shuttle service doesn’t operate at a loss, as it currently does.
“It’s not as important as getting folks to school and getting folks to work,” Harris said.
Earlier this year, the council approved a $3 million bridge loan to MATA to keep the buses rolling and the transit authority’s financial liquidity intact as the bus system waited on a late-arriving federal grant that ultimately came in.
In six years, the transit authority has cut 30 percent of its hours of service, meaning buses have been taken off routes. At first, MATA’s ridership remained stable, but interim MATA President Tom Fox told the council it is now in decline. An estimated 11 million people a year ride city buses. The vast majority of them have no other form of transportation.
The transit authority budget proposed to the council included an anticipated $4.9 million loss, with the bus system billing itself for a $6.3 million annual required contribution toward its pension liability.
“We eventually will have to fund it,” said transit authority Chief Financial Officer Gil Noble. “But our operation is too tight to allocate money to that.”
When Harris unsuccessfully proposed cutting $1.8 million to fund additional red light cameras in the city, he drew opposition from council member Myron Lowery, who proposed the addition and was behind the original move to the initial set of 25 cameras.
“They are actually improving our efficiency for safety through automation,” Lowery said. “They’ve improved safety.”
Harris termed the cameras “un-American.”
“It really deteriorates the quality of life,” he added. “In my view, folks are innocent until proven guilty.”
When City Court Clerk Thomas Long began talking about possible revenue the city might lose, council member Jim Strickland said the cameras and the fines motorists pay when they are caught running a red light aren’t supposed to be part of the city’s fiscal bottom line.
“They are really not supposed to be about money,” he said. “They are supposed to be about safety. Every year at this time that gets turned around.”