VOL. 131 | NO. 87 | Monday, May 2, 2016
New City Council Learns Ways of Budget Season Quickly
By Bill Dries
There are 3,000 miles of street curbs in Memphis. Figures like this are the basic elements of budget season at City Hall.
They are how 13 Memphis City Council members – seven of them four months into their first four-year term of office – wrap their heads around an $85.3 million capital budget proposal and a $667 million operating budget proposal.
The council completed a two-day review of the capital budget proposal by Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland last week and begins a longer review of the operating budget proposal Tuesday, May 3.
City Chief Financial Officer Brian Collins began the capital budget review with a reminder that a chart mapping 30 years of city debt service was in hundreds of millions and billions of dollars.
“There’s not enough room to put all of the zeroes on this page,” he told council members.
And he reminded the council that the $85.3 million capital budget headlined by Strickland in his April 19 budget address is only the general obligation bond revenue.
The overall capital budget total for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is $225.6 million.
It includes storm water and sewer fee revenue as well as federal, state and other grants and “reprogram” money – funding the city has in anticipation of the next phase of multi-year projects and money left over when projects come in under budget.
• It costs the city $70,000 to pave a lane mile of road.
Council budget committee chairman Edmund Ford Jr. brings the precision and classroom skills only a high school math teacher can to the council’s review process.
“I’ll be hitting the gavel in one minute,” Ford announced at the head of the committee table last week near the end of a break in the session. He watched a digital stopwatch on his iPad screen. At 10 seconds, he began counting it down and rapped his gavel after zero.
“I love the excitement and I love the questions the council members are asking because they complement perfectly with several of the questions, comments and concerns that more seasoned council members have asked in the past and are asking now,” Ford said during the break.
Ford is in his third term on the council. He also serves as council vice chairman.
• The city has a 30-year paving cycle in the current fiscal year – roads get repaved every 30 years. It would become a 28-year paving cycle in the proposed budget.
Council members, new and veteran, had already staked out budget turf on the opening day of hearings a week ago.
Council member Martavius Jones has questioned closely any joint city-county funding for projects, arguing that a 50-50 city-county split isn’t fair to Memphis taxpayers since they also pay county property taxes.
It was a point Jones made often as both a Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools board member.
Jones’ point also includes seeking more county government funding of projects and programs in the city of Memphis.
“Memphis is still in Shelby County,” Ford chimed in as Jones urged citizens to seek out county commissioners to push for county funding of more projects in the city.
• The city spent $30,000 cleaning up the fish kill resulting from a raw sewage spill recently into Cypress Creek and McKellar Lake. The city spent another $50,000 cleaning the water from the Cypress Creek-McKellar Lake raw sewage spill.
Several council members, including Jones, are pushing for a larger share of city contracts for minority-owned businesses.
And the call for a larger share of contracts comes with a palpable level of disdain and skepticism about the bureaucracy and qualification process required for businesses to be certified as minority businesses in order to participate.
“This is our opportunity to make a difference in the community,” Jones said of a potential $500 million in contracts over several years in one public works division category.
Council member Janis Fullilove said she heard Strickland pledge his commitment to increasing the percentage of minority business.
“I’m committed to losing 25 pounds,” she said. “My point is, there’s going to have to be more than a commitment.”
• A consent decree between the city and federal regulators obligates the city to spend $250 million over a 10-year period on an upgrade and renovation of the city’s sewer system.
Council member Berlin Boyd has served by appointment on the council twice for about a year each time before he was elected to a full four-year term in 2015. Boyd has quickly emerged as the “back to basics” council member in the budget sessions on what Strickland has termed a “brilliant at the basics” budget proposal.
For Boyd, the basic approach translates into blunt questions and observations.
“My God,” Boyd began as he reacted to a capital budget line item that included bike lanes. The lane markings are not a single line item but are part of various line items that include other street improvements.
“Can we at least get some of the same concern about bike lanes in the inner city for community centers, improvements in roads in the inner city, improvements to sidewalks in the inner city,” Boyd added. “People in the hood ride bikes out of necessity, not pleasure and enjoyment. My folks don’t care about a bike lane one bit.”
Nevertheless, there was no move in the budget committee by Boyd or anyone else to strip the bike lane funding from the capital budget proposal.
• It would cost $750,000 to take another year off the street paving cycle.
Boyd got enough votes on the committee to move some capital money from police cars to fire trucks.
Nine and 10 of the 13 council members attended the two days of capital budget hearings last week, so the committee recommendation is seen as a good, but not irrevocable indication of how it will fare before the full council.
Ford’s goal is to have final budget votes by the council’s June 7 meeting.
“I’ve noticed the learning curve,” Ford said near the end of day two last week. “But as I see these other budget positions come to us, the learning curve is getting like this,” Ford said, drawing his two index fingers closer together.