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VOL. 131 | NO. 81 | Friday, April 22, 2016

Strickland in New Seat for Budget Give-and-Take

By Bill Dries

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When Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland finished his budget address to the Memphis City Council Tuesday, April 19, council member Edmund Ford had a film clip he wanted Strickland and the rest of the council to watch.

It was from the film “The Color Purple,” which a puzzled Strickland admitted he had not seen recently.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland presented his first budget proposal to the city council April 19, outlining a new emphasis with some of the same political fault lines at play in the coming deliberations.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“It’s been a while,” Strickland said.

“You’re probably wondering why in the world am I showing a scene from “The Color Purple,’” said Ford, who is the council’s budget committee chairman.

There wasn’t any dialogue in the brief clip, just a quick view of a kitchen scene from the film set in the early 20th century before World War II. It was a stove in the kitchen that Ford paused the clip on to make his point.

“I want you to look at that stove right there. This stove almost looks like the same stove in a few of the community centers in my district,” Ford said. “The money was put in the budget almost 11 months ago and I still see that in those respective community centers.”

Ford’s point is a common one among council members, although not usually made in that way.

“You used to be the budget chairman. You know how frustrating it can be,” Ford said to Strickland. “Most likely, that budget will be presented with a lot of amendments. We want to make sure with the amendments that are put in place – that respective council members that ask for those particular services – those things happen within that year.”

Generations of council members whose photos now hang on the east wall of the council chambers, where former members’ portraits are posted, have made the same point.

It is that the mayor and his administration will rearrange the budget after the council rearranges it and ignore council votes to add and subtract items.

The other side of the argument is that council members don’t always say how they will pay for items they add to the city’s budget – specifically what items they would cut from the budget plan to pay for new items.

Ford expressed his hope that council members would have a source of funding for their proposed amendments, although he didn’t have a visual aid to make the companion point.

The proposed operating budget is $667 million, $9 million more than the previous year but a spending plan that would keep the city property tax rate at $3.40.

Budget hearings by the council begin Tuesday, April 26, at City Hall with the capital budget.

The capital budget proposal is $85 million, funded primarily by bonds and federal grants for one-time, non-recurring spending including construction projects and other infrastructure improvements like street paving.

The capital budget proposal includes not just the fiscal year that begins July 1, but the next four fiscal years beyond that, although those future funding amounts are tentative until or unless the council approves them.

Capital projects are often funded over several fiscal years with amounts in one year covering planning and design or demolition and later years covering the cost of construction.

When the money isn’t used in a single year or a project is delayed in those future years, the money becomes “reprogrammed” funding. The city has $477.6 million in such funding.

In some cases, it’s going to be used. In other cases, especially those in which the city is using the funding to leverage private investment and that investment stalls or doesn’t materialize, the money stays on the books for those projects or for transfer to other projects.

Before the council and former Mayor A C Wharton imposed a suggested limit of $65 million per fiscal year on capital spending, the capital budget book included so many projects that there was no way all of them could possibly get done during that year.

The practice of including more than can be done allows council incumbents to tell their constituents a project in the district is in the budget. But that can be a double-edged sword when the constituents don’t see any work being done on the project after a fiscal year or two.

Strickland intended to go below the $65 million cap as he took office in January.

Instead he submitted a capital budget proposal $20 million above the cap.

“We held it down as low as we could. It’s still high because of those unknown huge expenses we had,” Strickland said, citing items like the estimated $60 million to replace police and fire radio systems that he discovered from the previous administration months after taking office. “But I was determined to put more money into paving roads and I wasn’t going to skimp on that.”

Street paving is a $16.5 million line item in the capital budget proposal.

That is 10 percent more than was in the current fiscal year’s budget for street repaving and translates to 245 lane miles of roadway.

By contrast, Mason Village, a delayed redevelopment of land on E.H. Crump Boulevard where the Fowler Homes public housing development once stood, is a $2 million line item for the coming fiscal year.

The Mason Village project includes no amounts in the four fiscal years that follow. But the item has $10.1 million total in reprogram funding, including the $2 million to be spent in the coming fiscal year.

The description of Mason Village says the $2 million is for “pre-development investments in the infrastructure and public space in support of the redevelopment of the area” – that area is north of Mason Temple Church of God In Christ.

The project, with private investment, would build “nearly 80 units of new, high quality, mixed income housing.”

The public housing development was demolished in 2003. But it was not part of the federally funded demolition of other public housing developments that began in the late 1990s for redevelopment as mixed-use, mixed-income housing.

The Church of God In Christ intended to develop a new headquarters on the site and give Mason Temple more of a campus feel.

A Fowler multifamily development was built on some of the land along with Latham Terrace, a senior citizen development.

PROPERTY SALES 81 277 20,909
MORTGAGES 85 329 24,074
BUILDING PERMITS 219 672 43,265
BANKRUPTCIES 64 238 13,418