VOL. 131 | NO. 93 | Tuesday, May 10, 2016
Mayor Opposes City Funds for Mud Island
By Bill Dries
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland says the city may be willing to help fund a $9 billion expansion of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital that is mostly private capital.
(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)
But he has other thoughts about a privately run Mud Island River Park that the Riverfront Development Corp. is weighing.
“I never said we’d never do it. I just said in this budget I did not see any big new projects,” Strickland said on the WKNO/Channel 10 show Behind The Headlines. “Like Mud Island – I have not reviewed either of the proposals. But I’m really not in favor of using city money there. I’m looking for somebody to do a private thing there that we just lease the space for and let them go.”
Strickland made the point during a larger conversation about big capital projects as he pursues a “brilliant at the basics” approach emphasizing road repairs and paving, blight battles and fighting crime.
He said St. Jude’s expansion, with details still emerging, is different.
“Their potential expansion is 2,000 new high paying jobs,” Strickland said. “That’s huge. I think we need to be involved there.”
The state budget approved by the Tennessee Legislature in April includes $12 million in one-time state economic development funding for St. Jude’s expansion.
A Riverfront Development Corp. committee is seeking more detailed financial information from two finalists for the job of redeveloping the park – RVC Outdoors Destinations of Memphis and Mansion Entertainment and Media LLC of Branson, Mo.
RVC has a park-wide plan while Mansion is only interested in improving and running the amphitheater. A committee reviewing those proposals could recommend one or the other or both, at which point the Strickland administration becomes involved directly in talks for a contract agreement.
Strickland was joined on Behind The Headlines by city Chief Financial Officer Brian Collins and Memphis City Council Budget Committee Chairman Edmund Ford Jr.
The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.
Council budget committee hearings resume Tuesday, May 10. Ford’s goal is to have the full council complete all of its budget and tax rate votes at its June 7 session, ahead of the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.
Still to come are council discussions about one of Strickland’s top budget priorities, increasing the 2,050-member Memphis Police Department force by 200 to 300 new officers starting with two training classes in the new fiscal year.
Ford wants to see exit interviews with officers who left in recent years and threatened to drop the level of police officers below 2,000.
“I know people have seen commercials and people have seen billboards saying the only reason public safety employees are leaving is because of benefits,” Ford said, referring to an ad campaign by the Memphis Police Association seeking to restore benefits for city employees cut by the mayor and council over the last two years.
“I want to see the exit interviews. I’ve seen one set already,” Ford said. “Only 11 percent said it was because of the benefit changes. I just want to make sure we don’t focus more on the rhetoric.”
Strickland says having more cops is a financial balancing act with complications from the recently ended session of the Tennessee Legislature that included a roll-back of the Hall Income Tax on dividends and investments.
“Brian’s not going to let us forget we need another $20 million for our pension over the next couple of years,” he said. “So we have a $20 million need per year on the pension. In my mind, we need another $15 million to hire more police officers – all at the same time that the state Legislature may take away the Hall Income Tax which is $15 million. Those are our big challenges.”
The city’s level of debt stands at $1.2 billion, according to Collins.
“I think we have to think of it as a range,” he said. “I think we are within the range that is OK for Memphis, probably on the high side of the range.”
Collins credits the city’s fiscal policy over the last three years that has become more conservative. A large reason for that shift is due to pressure from the Tennessee Comptroller’s office, which expressed concern about the city’s debt level, the refinancing of its debt and the need to better fund the city’s liability from pension and other employee benefits.
“I think we saw a recognition that we had to get very serious about our fiscal responsibility and that’s carried over,” Collins said. “For us to succeed, one of the foundational pieces has to be a city that is financially sound. It’s really only from there that we can move forward and face all of the things that are priorities the mayor has laid out.”