City Council Settles Budget, But Other Issues Remain

By Bill Dries

The budget season at City Hall is over with the Tuesday, June 6, Memphis City Council vote approving a $680 million city operating budget, an $81.3 million capital budget and a $3.27 city property tax rate.

Another budget season at City Hall ended this week, but still to come are discussions between council chairman Berlin Boyd, left, and Mayor Jim Strickland, about larger issues, including public safety priorities and how to run Beale Street. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

But there is still more discussion and debate ahead about city government’s priorities and the council’s role in them.

Council member Martavius Jones called off plans to propose a $7.3 million cut in the Memphis Police budget. The amount was the funding in the police budget for 161 positions that police would not fill in the new fiscal year.

But Jones said city chief operating officer Doug McGowen convinced him the funding for the unfilled positions is on paper only.

“I gained some insight,” Jones said. “But I don’t feel that budget was presented in a manner that was as transparent as it should have been.”

He also said the larger issue of public safety priorities remains, with Jones among those advocating for more city spending on items like community centers and libraries to “improve the quality of life of all Memphians.”

At $259.1 million, the Memphis Police Department is the largest of 17 divisions and offices in the city operating budget. The next highest amount by division is the $172.2 million for the Memphis Fire Department followed by $51.9 million in grants and funding to various agencies.

“If we look at Memphis and what’s been important to us over the past 20 or 30 years, we have seen our investment in public safety increase exponentially and a commensurate decline in our investment in communities,” Jones said. “I would challenge this community. We need to decide what is important to us.”

Cardell Orrin, one of the leaders of a local coalition of groups that challenged Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and the council to fund public education and education-related programs with $10 million, argued that should have been important to the council.

“We have to decide what are our priorities and what should we invest in,” Orrin told the council.

He immediately got push back from the council.

“The last time I checked, 69.7 percent of the county is Memphis, which means we pay county taxes, ladies and gentlemen. We pay a lot of county taxes,” said council budget committee chairman Edmund Ford Jr., who is a SCS teacher.

Council member Patrice Robinson, a former Shelby County Schools board member, tallied city funding in the new fiscal year for “youth programming” that benefits SCS students at $36.8 million.

And Jones, who as a school board member proposed the resolution that set in motion the schools merger that ended the city’s obligation to fund SCS, argued Shelby County government – the sole local funder of Shelby County Schools directly – could do more.

“I would contend that money that Memphis contributes to Shelby County could have very well been spent in investing in children,” he said. “Let’s apply some pressure to our colleagues on the county commission.”

The council cut all $350,000 in funding to the Urban Arts Commission in the capital budget. The proposal by council member Joe Brown came after he and other council members called for all local artists to be hired for the commission’s public art projects.

Council chairman Berlin Boyd termed it an “ongoing debate.”

“The fact that we give them 1 percent of the (capital budget), but if you look at the overall participation – local or minority participation – it’s limited,” Boyd said. “The fact that it doesn’t stay here and then we can’t find African-Americans – that’s where it just kind of drives me nuts.”

Boyd is not a fan of some of the art works complaining about one work that he described as “car doors on a wall.”

“If that’s the case, I’ll have you art everywhere for $70 grand,” he said.

Council member Worth Morgan argued, “If we cut it to zero, then no money is spent on art.”

“I’m probably not a fan of some of the modern pieces,” he said. “But to cut the program entirely without any conversation about potentially bringing it back … I think it is a little more severe than needed.”

In what is normally the most routine part of any council session and the first vote council members take at a session, the council approved the minutes of its May 23 session, including approval of lowering the Saturday late night $10 cover charge on Beale Street to $5.

Mayor Jim Strickland has said he is considering all possibilities in the examination of crowd control measures in the entertainment district including a rare mayoral veto of the cover charge reduction.

Strickland says the $10 cover with $8 in coupons good at Beale Street businesses has improved safety in the district. Boyd is among council members who say the cover charges gives the appearance of “being exclusionary of African Americans.”

“It was an attempt to eliminate what is perceived by certain segments of our community as being an exclusionary program,” he said of cutting the cover charge. “I think we made a move in the right direction.”

Boyd also said the Beale Street Task Force approved to examine alternatives to the cover charge currently includes Deputy Police Chief Terry Landrum, city deputy chief operating officer Patrice Thomas, Memphis In May International president Jim Holt, Regena Bearden of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, DMC president Terence Patterson, hotel-motel association leader Wayne Tabor and Joellyn Sullivan, owner of Silky O’Sullivan’s.

The group will make recommendations to the full council by September on alternatives to the cover charge or a lower cover charge and on what other cities, including New Orleans do for crowd control in entertainment districts as well as consult with security experts.

With the lower cover charge and what the street has collected so far with year, Boyd estimates the cover charge – old and new should mean net proceeds of $162,750 the council will control by the September report date for the committee.

“It is this council’s goal not to use that money for any purposes outside of extra added security,” he said. “Every dime that we collect from the $5 on Beale Street Bucks will go toward added security.”

Boyd said that could fund extra private security on the periphery of the entertainment district including area parking lots.

Morgan said there are still some issues about who controls what on Beale Street at City Hall.

“We direct the budget, not the people,” he said.