VOL. 8 | NO. 43 | Saturday, October 17, 2015
New Mayor in Town
By Bill Dries
Jim Strickland has some big decisions to make.
Mayor-Elect Jim Strickland
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
At the top of the list: make sure the toilets are flushing, the lights are coming on at night and the stoplights are flashing red, yellow and green.
But beyond the basics, Strickland will begin closer consideration of the four big issues that dominated the 2015 mayor’s race.
He has about 10 weeks before he takes the oath of office on New Year’s Day to become the city of Memphis’ new mayor. And the transition from current Mayor A C Wharton’s administration to Strickland’s already is underway, beginning directly after the Oct. 8 Memphis elections.
(Memphis News File/Andrew J. Breig)
By the end of the campaign, the four major mayoral contenders were no longer debating whether crime in Memphis was statistically up or down. And they never disagreed on the need for the police force to go from its current 2,000 officers to 2,400.
“(Strickland) ran on stopping crime,” said mayoral rival and Memphis City Council colleague Harold Collins, who finished third in the race. “I think he knows he’s got to do that. … The people of Memphis, 42 percent of them, voted for him on that premise.”
An early and key decision by Strickland is whether to reappoint or replace current Memphis Police Department director Toney Armstrong, who in 2014 set his retirement date for 2017.
Strickland, who isn’t ruling anything in or out when it comes to the top positions, talked collectively about appointments at the transition’s early stage.
“I will probably meet with every director individually if they want to,” he said. “And then kind of on top of that, the transition committee will advise me on hires also. It will be my own interaction coupled with the recommendations of the transition committee.”
Strickland announced Wednesday, Oct. 14, that the co-chairs of the transition team will be Rosie Phillips Bingham, vice president of student affairs at the University of Memphis; Emily Greer, chief administrative officer of ALSAC/St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; and Mitch Graves, CEO of HealthChoice LLC.
Some moves on the police front Strickland has favored as a councilman are to take effect before he becomes mayor, including the return of Police Service Technicians. Better known as PSTs, the civilian police employees direct traffic, take fender bender reports when there are no injuries and free up commissioned police officers to deal with more serious matters. The city is already taking applications for PST positions.
Strickland and council member Kemp Conrad
(Memphis News File/Andrew J. Breig)
Police body cameras also are on the way, minus the controversial $880,000 community engagement element. The city council’s postponed vote on a reconstituted Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board comes back to the council in November.
Councilman Kemp Conrad is among those who are not convinced that cuts to city employee pensions and health benefits are behind the recent exodus of police officers. The mayor and council have been fighting to keep that number from dipping below 2,000.
“I think this is really not about the benefit cuts,” Conrad said. “We still have a very, very competitive package when you compare our package to other departments. But we have to get out there and start selling.”
In April, four months into his term of office, Strickland is required to present the council with a budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Because of the short time frame, his first budget – like that of any mayor just taking office – will be built on his predecessor’s framework.
“Realistically, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to implement all the changes to the budget I want in this first year because of the tight time frame,” Strickland said.
Nevertheless, he could start combining some city divisions and eliminating funded, unfilled positions. And Strickland doesn’t rule out layoffs.
“We’re going to look at restructuring city government to achieve some things,” he said.
Strickland points out that he’s never taken a no-tax-hike pledge. But he has said repeatedly that he believes the combined city-county property tax rates are a major factor in the city’s population loss.
Strickland also believed Memphis could reach full funding of its pension liability sooner than fiscal year 2020, when state law requires the city to fully fund the $78 million annual required contribution.
The council put more toward that goal in the last fiscal year – a $28 million increase to $48 million total – than Wharton proposed.
But Wharton was quick to note that the independent actuarial consultants hired by the council said the city couldn’t afford to make the whole amount in two years, as Strickland and others on the council wanted.
Their goal was to fund it before the 2015 city elections. They feared a new council wouldn’t have the political will to manage through cuts and efficiencies and would instead go for a property tax hike.
When asked if it would be possible to fully fund the ARC sooner than 2020, Strickland said: “I do not know. I hope so.”
“It’s an income and expense issue,” he added. “The council is not privy to income projections very often. Last year I think we had an increase in sales tax collections, and I’m not sure what they are projecting for next year with respect to property tax or sales tax.
Council member Edmund Ford Jr.
“On the expense side, I’ve really got to get to the budget more with the help of the finance department to see what we can eliminate.”
Council member Edmund Ford Jr., who campaigned for Wharton, sees the council staying the course. But the winners of the five council runoff races could influence those decisions.
“Unless the five runoffs go one particular way, I don’t forecast the council changing the way that the reform was voted on last year and the year before,” he said.
Conrad is all for meeting the ARC sooner than 2020.
“The faster we can ramp it up, the less it costs us over the long,” he said. “It’s like a credit card bill. You can continue to make the minimum payment but you pay a lot more in the long run.”
Greater Memphis Chamber president Phil Trenary agrees. The chamber’s Chairman’s Circle backed Wharton in the election. But chamber leaders have also said the city’s priority should be getting its financial affairs in order, specifically the benefits changes.
“Anytime you look at a community that has a balance sheet that is overburdened or out of control, that introduces risk,” Trenary said. “We already have an unacceptably high tax rate in Memphis, and if we don’t address that, we are at risk for increasing the burden on employers here. … If successful, that sends a message to the world that Memphis truly does have the proper focus in making this a better environment to create good jobs.”
Tax incentives for economic development were a big political issue even before the campaign season started.
Strickland doesn’t like the tax incentives – payments-in-lieu-of taxes – in particular. But he says, at least for now, the city needs them to compete.
He’s also suggested a similar tax abatement incentive for those who buy homes in Memphis’ blighted areas and restores them.
(Memphis News File/Andrew J. Breig)
Ford argues that PILOTs are misunderstood.
“Sometimes people think it’s something that should be thrown away and you should start over,” he said. “Maybe we should do more adapting to making the model better instead of overall reforming it.”
Trenary has shifted the chamber’s focus in the last two years to recruiting more advanced manufacturing jobs, with Memphis’ status as a logistics industry leader well secured.
“People confused logistics and distribution with not being good jobs,” he said of the mayoral campaign. “We have to start growing our economy. The answer unfortunately is not going to be tax increases. The answer cannot be any more cuts in services.
“We have to grow. It’s going to be a laser focus on job creation, job growth and, most importantly, the creation of good jobs.”
More long term, Strickland has talked of private-sector and nonprofit-funded efforts to help ex-offenders get jobs as well as youth programs and training programs for workers to fill existing jobs.
Council member Wanda Halbert, who leaves the legislative body at year’s end, sees little separation between the city’s economic development and decisions on where to spend money – be it a residential area or a plot of land in the Pidgeon Industrial Park for a new logistics or manufacturing tenant.
She reflects the call for a breakout of economic development to parts of Memphis where such development is seldom seen.
Strickland’s Midtown-East Memphis council district includes Overton Square, the dramatically reborn entertainment district, which includes a city-funded parking garage that doubles as a water detention basin in what was a flood-prone area.
“At the end of the day, we have a group of citizens who are now dry when there’s a hard rain and an even bigger group of people who are still walking in thigh-high water with a hard rain,” she said, referring to areas in her district. “A city can’t do that. You can’t be on the record doing that. ... You can’t have favorite children.”
Strickland is only the second council member in the 47-year history of the mayor-council form of government to be elected mayor. (Wyeth Chandler did it in 1971.)
“I think it makes it easier because I have a working relationship with them and a kinship –friendship with most of them,” Strickland said at the outset of his relationship as mayor with a council that will include at least six of the current member he serves with. “I understand the positions they are in and the information they want. I’ve just got to reach out and work with them.”
The best example of those connections is the role Jack Sammons has played since becoming Wharton’s chief administrative officer in May. Sammons, a former councilman, has brought some certainty to dealings between the two.
Conrad said the relationship between the council and the “seventh floor” – where the mayor’s office is – couldn’t get much more dysfunctional. Wharton rarely attended council meetings, committee or main voting sessions.
“We’re not going to agree on everything. …We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Conrad said. “I know what we’ve had for the last six years. It hasn’t been productive. There’s been a lack of trust, a lack of communication, a lack of teamwork. I fully expect that to change.”